Tuesday, June 29, 2004

I ship out tomorrow

So I got a call this morning from Sergant something-or-other at Fort Hamilton asking me where I was. I told him that I was asleep. He then informed me that I was scheduled to ship out four hours ago. I told him that "there is no way in hell I am shipping out today". So after about a million phone calls between my unit, the enlistment people, (Military Enlistment Processing Center) MEPS in Brooklyn, Administration at Fort Totten in Queens, and myself, we decided that I am shipping out tomorrow.

There was a massive screw up, and I still do not have orders. Nor do I have any idea where my instructions are actually coming from.

Mind you, I was scheduled to ship out in 10 days from now, so this is not a big surprise. I will be gone for about 2 months on training. But I would have liked more than 20 hours notice of a schedule chage.

The scene was straight out of Catch-22. "I don't know who told you it was today, but you are not leaving for another 10 days", and then "I don't know who told you you are leaing in 10 days, but you are leaving today." So no one knows who told who what, but I leave at 0500 tomorrow morning.

I have a zillion things to do that I thought I would be doing over the next 10 days. Arrrggghh.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Differences between Arabs and, well . . . everyone else

This piece is actually pretty interesting on the differences between Arabs and westerners. (Ignore all the anti-Western Junk in the piece, that is useless.)

The article states that Arabs and westerners share most values, only we express them differently. I really don't know about that, but there are a few useful things that westerners should take seriously when thinking about the Arab world.

For example: "Americans value personal liberty, while Arabs sacrifice individual freedoms in favor of the collective identity of their religious, family, tribal, ethnic or national groupings." . . . Americans like to behave according to clear rules and explicit public statements, while Arabs tend to engage others on the basis of relationships that are constantly negotiated and renegotiated, based on implicit rules of fair reciprocal treatment. Americans negotiate their political relations on television; Arabs do it in the privacy of their living rooms."

These are useful things to keep in mind.


This piece in The New Yorker is just a sad rehash of the same anti-settler junk that is, by now boring. While I have no love for your average Hebronite who fanatically can only think of holding on to another bit of land, it seems sad that The New Yorker can do no better. Golberg, the author, spends way too much time just being insulting.

Jews should just not be allowed to write about controversial Jewish issues for good magazines. There are two good reasons for this: 1) Jews, however ignorant they are of the issues at hand, assume that if it is about Israel, then they understand it. They are Jewish after all. What arrogance. 2) Jews, like any other member of any other ethnicity, feel like it is OK to mock, insult, caricature, and otherwise demean any human being that is part of their ethnic group. Any self-respecting fair-minded non-Jew would never write about Jews this way.

It is like Goldberg is scared that if he is not insulting, he will be accused of being biased.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

My Hectic Week

This past week was full of lots of travel and few insights in to ife. Monday I went to Las Vegas. It was lots of fun. JetBlue was the easiest check-in ever. I went from ticket counter to boarding in about 4 minutes. The flights was OK, though they have no meals, and I forgot to eat before hand. Also I discovered that it was not so bad taking the A train to Howard Beach and then taking the airtrain to the airport. I got to Vegas, and it was 102 degrees, which I hear is normal.

I checked in in my room at the Venetian. It is a really nice place. It is very cool. The suite we had was HUGE, wiht a pretty good view. Often, they will upgrade you a bit if you just as for it. They are pretty cool about it.

The first night I got there I saw Penn and Teller. They really do put on a great show. Then it was walking on the strip. The next day I had lunch at Quark's, which is part of the Star Trek theme exhibit at the Law Vegas Hilton. Then I had a nice dinner at the Belagio. Finally it was breakfast at the Mirage.

I flew home on Wednesday. Thursday morning it was off to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, in Cape Cod. I heard a good little lecture on the evolution wars, and got all flustered over the nail puzzle. Do not leave there by the way without having a popover at Pie in the Sky. There was a friendly game of softball, with the marine biologists versus the
neuro-biologists, with the Marine biologists winning something like 7 to 1.

We finished off with a bang. There was a very frat-esque toga party where we drank till dawn. Then there was the 5 hour bus ride home, where I am exhausted.

(Thanks to "S" (and the nice write-up) for Vegas, Thanks to "L" and "S" and also "R" for all the fun in Cape Cod.)

Friday, June 11, 2004

Philosophy, Arguments, Blogs, and Nietzsche

Camille Paglia makes a passing anti-blog reference. Her point is essentially that blogs and related media reduce our respect for rational, sustained argument. I agree completely. (Have you read some of these blogs?) Scribo picks up on this and disagrees. Scribo claims that the medium is neutral and it is what gets done with the blog that counts. I sort-of agree there too, but what Scribo misses is that (1) in practice, not much that passes for good argument is getting done with the medium, and (2) blogs actually are harmful to what can be called the "culture of argument".

Let me explain. Hermann Cohen, the founder of the Marburg neo-Kantian school had a very strong gripe with the aphoristic style of doing philosophy. He does not mention Neitzsche by name, but I and many others suspect that this is who he has in mind. For Cohen, aphorisms are an insult to the philosophic spirit. Aphorisms pretend to present truth as a flash of insight or a moment of inspiration. He thought that the spirit of philosophy goes directly counter to this.

The spirit of philosophy involves argument and reason. It involves the analysis of language or of premises which are taken, for a variety of reasons, to be true.

Neitzsche was a master of the aphorism. Being a master of aphorism involves a different skill than being a master of philosophical argument. Being a master of argument involves understanding logic. Understanding logic involves two things. First is coherence with the world, the second involves coherence with human intuitions.

Logical rules of inference must preserve both of these to work. Mastering the aphorism involves only a psychological skill, , ie, the second one we mentioned, coherence with intuition. However, intuition is more easily fooled than the world. Ultimately all sloganeering and marketing involves this kind of skill. Respect for truth or accuracy has never been a goal of advertisers and slogan makers.

Merely presenting something as true seems to close the possibility that it is falsifiable, and it leaves the impression that it needs no further thought. (Also, this is not the place to argue about the place and role of axioms and intuitions in philosophy.) There is also tons of research out there showing how you can get people to believe something clearly false without actually arguing for it. (Eg, rhyming, showing that "everyone believes it". . .)

(I am sure there are Nietzsche scholars out there who will tell me about Nietzsche's "system" or whatever. Whether Nietzsche is actually guilty or not of what Cohen is accusing (what appears to be) Nietzsche of, is another matter entirely. I am not a historian of philosophy and what Nietzsche actually did is not the point here. Also, I am aware that you can say the same thing about Wittgenstein. That too is a whole other story.)

Bloggers are in a similar boat as aphorists. The blog as a writing style is still in its nacent stages. The original paradigm for blogs was "link and comment". This allowed for someone to link to an argument and perhaps post a counterexample or something like that. But those days where only the geeks had blogs are very gone. Everyone has a blog now. Blogs are supposed to be small and clever and frankly everyone who has one seems to think their voice is small, but clever.

Nonetheless, the blog is a style that is particularly conducive to the aphorism. Blogs are generally short, and present their messages in the same way as an aphorist might present his or her message. As a quip.

The blog was not ever intended for or used as a forum for lengthy careful arguments. The blog has always been about "throwing something out there". That is not to say that there is no way to use blogs for more careful and thoughtful argument, but a blog definitely gives one the feeling that he or she can say something meaningful and convincing in four poorly written sentences, a clever tag-line, and a link. Generally this is not possible.

I am therefore in general agreement with Paglia's assessment. A blog is generally a forum for those who want to substitute rhyme for reason, those who think being cute is better than being clever, or those who think that if they foam at the mouth it is as good as an argument from their mouth. Blogs have shown us that many people's intellectual limits reach about a two step argument, and generally one that is fallacious for more than one reason. Careful distinctions are rarely made, nor are premises or conclusions delimited. The people who like sitting around and telling you how other people are wrong are often no better.

This post, and this blog, is naturally not an exception, though there are some exceptions. There are a few bloggers who really do a good job at presenting good ideas, and good arguments. But in general this is the exception rather than the rule. Also, blogging can be extremely valuable independently of this. Some things to not rely on argument - like the news. Having numerous voices simply telling you what happened seems like a valuable service.

Other things are also likely to be done poorly now that we have millions of people raising themselves on blogs. Fiction is likely to suffer too. After all, blog-sized fiction seems hard to do well. Then again, maybe there will be a new genera. I seem to recall that Asimov once wrote a few pieces of postcard-sized fiction for use on postcards.

Perhaps we will start seeing pieces in Analysis that were originally blogs and were refined by the philosophical community, and then made it to print. I would not hold my breath, but I would not be too surprised either.

The medium may not be the message, but it certainly influences it a

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Hair and fall-out, and other Jewish problems

Those of you who have been following the Orthodox Jewish world the past month are undoubtedly aware of the two or three things on everyone's minds. First and foremost is the question of the wigs. Apparently many wigs worn by many Orthodox Jewish women come from hair that was donated as an offering by Hindu women in India as offerings to various Hindu gods and goddesses. This hair, as it is the product of idolatry, would be unfit for use by Jews.

The second big issue is the question of the water. Various microbes were recently discovered in some water, which were perhaps large enough to render the water unkosher, and thus unfit for Orthodox Jewish to drink.

Thirdly, is the issue of the eiruv in Brooklyn. This is a technical issue about creating an edifice that would act as a standard loophole to a prohibition against carrying in certain places on the Sabbath, where it normally would be prohibited. The details are cumbersome, so I will not go in to them here.

This third issue would make for an interesting study in a few years about the sociology of Jewish Law. The reason that this Eiruv was not built in Brooklyn sooner was because R. Moses Feinstein, the last great authority of Jewish law who passed away about 18 years ago, said not to. Hassidic Jews in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn never felt bound by his rulings, but nonetheless did not build an eiruv until a few years ago. Now many hassidic Jews use it. (There was a different issue in other hassidic neighborhoods too.) More left-wing Orthodox Jews also did not feel bound by his rulings and they have been using their own eiruv for years. Non-hassidic Jews recently built a new eiruv in Brooklyn. This eiruv is starting to catch on. More and more people are starting to use it. I suspect it will be generally accepted in a few years. My suspicion is that now there are a new generation of Brooklyn Orthodox Jews who were never under the sway of the rulings of Moses Feinstein, and do not remember him. It is those people who do not feel held back by his reasoning and prohibition. His reasoning was sound, but it does not necessarily mean it can fight what the community wants. The evolution of Jewish Law is full of examples of things becoming permitted or prohibited based on community pressure, and not the standard canonical protocols of Halachick decision making. These changes in Jewish law are well worth studying by scholars of Judaism. The historian Katz has done some good work on this, and there is also the seminal paper by Soloveitchik.

The second issue of the water will die down. Few people are taking it too seriously. A few people starting using Poland Spring water coolers in their homes, and maybe a few people bought better filters for their water, but I have not detected a major shift in water usage.

The first issue, which is most likely the most serious issue from the perspective of Jewish law, is the question of the wigs. You will still see many wigs being worn, ad every wig dealer in New York and Israel has taken out ads in the local papers telling everyone which of their wigs are definitely OK to wear, and which are still questionable. Many have taken to buying temporary wigs that are definitely OK, until this issue is resolved or dies down. These wigs are expensive.

Naturally, these issues have spawned a whole slew of Jokes. I welcome people to send me more. I heard someone recently talking about only using hair that is shmurah mishas kitzirah. Also, they discovered that there were many toilets that come from India. The ruling there was "shev, ve'al taaseh".

Those jokes are not so funny, but I am sure there are funnier ones out there. Tell them to me.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Some artsy stuff

This weekend I attended a film as part of the Brooklyn Museum's film festival. The tickets were free, as was the museum. The museum is free after 5PM on the first Saturday of each month. It is a really good museum. It is a pity the museum is not better known. They had some great exhibits.

The documentary, Alive in Limbo unfortunately was awful. The directors, who gave a short Q and A afterward were, obviously quite unintelligent, though the audience made them seem like a couple of Einsteins by comparison. The documentary itself had a lot of potential. It took five seemingly random Muslim children from Lebanon, a mixture of citizens and "refugees" and tried to give a small inkling of their lives, and how difficult it was.

That alone would have made for a good documentary. There are really crappy lives being lived in Lebanon, especially in the refugee camps, and they really do deserve our help. Unfortunately for the children, no one new will get that from this documentary.

The real goal of the documentary was to blame Israel for all the problems of the children in the camps. The only lines in the movie that really managed to make it on to the screen, as well as the editor's only bits of history that are ever mentioned in the film are the bits that deal with Israel's role in the problem.

The first part of the film takes place about a year or two after the 15-year long Lebanese civil war. Israel played roughly a 15 week roll in that, about half-way through the war, and naturally that is the only bit mentioned. From the film you would think never guess that Lebanon had anything to do with the awfulness that much of the country lived in during and after the war. Afterward I asked one of the directors why Lebanon's role was omitted and she claimed that the Lebanese editor took it out. (Jordan and the Palestinians' role in starting the civil war was of course not mentioned.)

The whole thing was to show you people who were hurt by Lebanon's poor economy and civil problems, as well as Israel's (and the Arab world's) original displacement of the Palestinians, and the Arab world's agreement to mistreat Palestinians indefinitely, and have everyone blame Israel.

If I were not the caring type, I would simply assume that this whole movie was just a propaganda flick, and assume that there are no children with bad lives, and Lebanon must be a great place. Obviously they have no interest in the facts, so it is just another piece of anti-Israel nonsense. (Though I do know better, and I do care, so I can tell you that Palestinians do lead crappy lives, and if only the Arab world were not full of people like. . . well, Arabs, they would be much better off.)

So my final say here is that if you hate Israel, and facts do not concern you much, this is probably a good film to see.

(Update It has been noted lately quite a bit that the major focus for Palestinians has been the right of return. Common sense tells us that for the Palestinians to have the right to return to Israel effectively creates three states with Palestinian majorities, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. It is also obvious to all that sooner or later there will be an autonomous state of Palestine. So it is obvious why the propaganda is where it is. There is a strong interest in ending the state of Israel. It can hardly be about anything else.)

Secondly, while I rarely endorse these lefty artsy projects, and I am not endorsing this one, I'd like to put in a plug for some art festival in Tel Aviv, specifically an exhibit by Licht and Stern's video comics. (One of them is a friend.)

I wish I could be there though. It has been a while since I visited.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Review of Samuelson's Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy

Samuelson recently wrote a book on the history of Jewish Philosophy. This deals with an older book of his, An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy.

Rather atypically for a book on the history of philosophy, the book starts with a rather lengthy discussion of Contemporary Jewish History. Jewish history is closely tied to Jewish philosophy in a much stronger way than the history of philosophy ion general is linked to human history.

Following that is a discussion of what might be called philosophies of Judaism, that is outlooks on what Judaism is, or various conceptions of the nature of Judaism.

When Samuelson begins to address philosophical issues the discussion opens with Spinoza. Spinoza was perhaps the deepest of the modern philosophers. His work is very difficult to penetrate, and perhaps that is why it has garnered less attention than other modern philosophers, like his intellectual inspiration Descartes, or those who followed him like Leibniz. However, despite his brilliance, it is unclear what makes Spinoza's philosophical output Jewish. Clearly Spinoza was Jewish, and he was a philosopher, but that hardly merits the moniker "Jewish Philosopher". This question has been somewhat controversial, and it should have been dealt with in any text on Jewish philosophy. A case needs to be made for his inclusion. We are given about one sentence on this question.

The presentation of Spinoza is rather compact. Spinoza's ethics and metaphysics are notoriously difficult to follow. This book does not ease the presentation that much. The discussion of applied ethics in Spinoza is a bit clearer. This is where the book addresses Spinoza's views on politics, religion, scripture, and law.

Next is a rather good discussion of Mendelssohn, and his place in the Haskallah. Unfortunately some of the other philosophers who were of the same period got too short a treatment, though I would like to have learned more about them. However the author is to be excused for not giving too much space to Samuel Hirsch, S. D. Luzzatto, as they were minor figures, and the author rightly does not seem to place much faith in their greatness as philosophers, or their centrality in Jewish thought.

The discussion of Hermann Cohen is short and somewhat sloppy, but quite valuable. Very little of Cohen's work is available in English. I was particularly interested in Cohen's notion of infinitesimals, and how Cohen used them in his philosophy of Judaism. There is a small discussion where the concept of a derivative is sort of spelled out, though I was unable to see how Cohen's notion of infinitesimal was unique. I could not really see how it differed from Weierstrass or if it was related to the notion that Abraham Robinson eventually came up with sometime in the 60's. This chapter, iof you read through it carefully, can pay off though, if you are interested in this. It really did make me want to read more of Cohen's work.

Then came a chapter on Buber. The chapter was pretty good, and rendered Buber's I and Thou intelligible, even to someone as deeply rooted in Analytic philosophy as myself. Unfortunately I cannot say the same for the presentation of Rosenzweig. I do not know if the inadequacy here is Samuelson's or Rosenzweig, but I could not really make heads or tales of Rosenzweig's system of thought. It was full of these incomprehensible metaphors, and vast generalizations about religions, and history, and the function of ritual, and things like that. I suspect that this is what passes for philosophy in Europe, so I can put the blame on Rosenzweig for perpetuating this sort of thinking. Perhaps if I had the patience to reread the chapter, it would have proved more rewarding.

The final two sections on Kaplan and Fakenheim were also pretty good reads. The point of Kaplan's Judaism as a Civilization is made clear. There seem to be no necessary conditions for Judaism. Judaism's goal, 9is and ought to be its own self-preservation. This notion has come under quite a bit of attack lately, but it was very influential in the new suburban Judaism that took root in the era immediately following Kaplan.

The chapter on Fakenheim is also rather clear. Fakenheim was made to see Jewish history anew in light of the Holocaust. It was such an event as to chage the nature of Judaism itself. I happen to disagree with Fakenheim in many places, but I shall save that for another time.

Overall, despite the books flaws, I thought that the book was quite rewarding. I got a good picture of modern Jewish philosophy from it. Now I need to fill in the gaps. A flaw I should point out is that it often reads like class notes. It seems like it would be great to hear the lectures that come with the book, to fill in gaps and make sense of everything. There are also good questions at the end, suitable for classes, that serve to reenforce the main themes of the chapter, and the bibliography is pretty decent.