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.