Monday, January 31, 2005

Review of Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night

Whichever bookstore I stepped in to in Israel there was Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Apparently it is really popular there both in the original English and in the Hebrew translation. It was a very good book.

The Book is narrated by Christopher, a 15 year old autistic boy. He is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. He discovers a murder and decides to investigate on his own. The victim - his neighbor's poodle.

In the course of this "investigation" we discover that the narrator is writing this book, he is a mathematical savant and the book is lightly peppered with nice mathematical anecdotes about things like the Monty Hall problem and the Turing Test. Christopher has problems doing things that most of us find natural, like taking a subway or eating. He has numerous quirks, some of which I, and I suspect, many of my friends share.

The narrator discovers many things in the course of the investigation, including who murdered the dog, and why, but the most important and interesting feature of the book is not the plot, but the style, the mind of the narrator.

Not being autistic, I cannot speak to its authenticity, but regardless, it is an insightful look at a different kind of mind.

The book reads really fast, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Review of Camus' The Plague

I actually finished reading Albert Camus' The Plague a few days ago, on Jan 25, coincidentally the day the plague in the books ends. And like the members of the town I couldn't wait for the plague to be over. The novel is about a town with the bubonic plague. The town gets quarantined and the townsfolk have to deal with the lack of contact with the outside world, with death, and with loneliness.

For all its hype, I expected more, but it was not bad, though isn't Camus supposed to be one of the great thinkers of our time? I just didn't see it.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

quick notes of my last week in Israel

My stay in Israel was fairly uneventful. I went to visit relatives in Jerusalem my first full day there. I had some nice lunch in Mattersdorf. On Tuesday I went to visit Hebrew University, and I had coffee with "Z" whom I had not expected to see at all, so that was nice. I also visited all the book stores in Jerusalem. Wednesday I visited with some distant relatives in Tel Aviv where we hung out on the beach and then helped a friend who was having contractions. I spent the night there and went to Haifa on Thursday. I took the train there and back. On the ride back I had an amusing conversation with some new Israel Air Force recruits. Friday I mostlyt wateched TV. I saw a good chunk of the Uri Zohar film festival. Though he is now a rabbi, he was really an important actor and director in Israel in the 60's and 70's. I need to get his stuff on DVD. Then I went to Machne Yehuda and stocked up on crembo and olives and garinim, and I was set for the weekend. I had dinner with Friends in Baka on Friday night, and then lunch with different friends in Baka on Shabbat afternoon. I then had an excrutiating plane trip and am now back at home.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Yesterday I went to my old haunts at Hebrew University. I also made the rounds of the bookstores here in Jerusalem. They have so cunh good stuff. I am now stocked for the next year or two for Hebrew Literature, and I found some good stuff in used book stores in English.

All is good otherwise.

Monday, January 24, 2005

I made it to Jerusalem

Something I forget every time I come to Jerusalem is what I am going to do when I get here. I arrived safely and I saw some distant relatives in Jerusalem. Not sure what comes next.

I left Istanbul just in time. I think I ran out of things that I wanted to do there. There were lots of stuff that were worth noting about Istanbul, and that I think is often true of travel in general. For example, for tourists, foreign countries are like strip clubs. There is always some bra that wants another dollar stuffed in it.

Hotels in Istabnbul have the strangest names. I passed places like the "Cartoon hotel" and the "Square hotel". Istanbul also hass too much pollution for me. Breathing Jerusalem air just feels a lot healithier.

My flight was fairly empty. It was quick and dull too. And while I know everyone hates airline meals, I think that I saw the worst looking one ever on my Istanbul-Tel Aviv flight. I could not even bear to look at it.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

f?nal hours ?n Istanbul

Yesterday I spent the day wander?ng and gett?ng lost ?nthe res?dent?al areas of ?stanbul. I was ?n Ortaköy for lunch where I had a baked potato which I ate overlook?ng the Bosphorous R?ver. It was qu?te plesant. The baked potato was served stuffed w?th about a thousand d?fferent th?ngs l?ke mushrooms, ol?ves, cheese, couscous, and p?ckles. There were about 10 ?nd?st?ngu?shable potato vendors l?ned up there vy?ng for customers.

Somet?me on my way back I was attacked by a gang of street k?ds. About 10 or 12 of the,m surrounded me. They really were k?ds, w?th the oldest be?ng around 14. They surrounded me all reach?ng ?n to my pockets and push?ng me a lot. I kept swatt?ng them away, and I th?nk I actually hurt one by acc?dent. Not too badly though. They d?dn't manage to steal anyth?ng. Somet?me ?n m?ddle my small notebook was pulled out of my pocket and fell to the floor. I stared at the last k?d who had not run away rather menac?ngly and looked at the notebook unt?l he p?cked ?t up from the floor, handed ?t to me, mumbled someth?ng that must have been an apology, and ran away w?th the other k?ds. They looked k?nd of poor and ?f I hadn't been the?r ?ntended v?ct?m I would have felt bad for them.

At n?ght wh?le walk?ng down the street a guy asked me for a l?ght on one of the s?de streets off Istaklal. I gave h?m one.

About a half hour later I passed by a restaurant where he was eat?ng w?th h?s cous?n. H?s cous?n came out and talked me ?n to the place to jo?n them for tea. So They ?ns?sted on treat?ng me to tea and conversat?on for a half hour or so. They were Turk?sh Cypr?ots. They were very n?ce.

I had some p?zza at a local place for d?nner. It was pretty awful. Then I went home and watched TV for a b?t and went to sleep.

I check out of my hotel ?n a few m?nutes and I am off to Israel.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


The f?rst few days I was here ?n Istanbal ?t was dr?zzl?ng, but the past few days ?t was rather plesant. I am greatful for that because I had really good tour?ng weather.

I saw a lot of the usual tour?st s?tes. I went w?th a small group to the Ayasof?a, the H?ppodrome, the Blue Mosque, the Sul?man Mosque, and the Covered Bazar (Wh?ch ?s just l?ke every other bazzar ?n the m?ddle east complete w?th lots of annoy?ng salespeople whom I am hav?ng d?uff?culty gett?ng used to.). We also got a lecture from the owner of a carpet store all about Turk?sh rugs (wh?ch apparently ?s a major ?ndustry here). He served very plesant apple tea.

We then went to Topkap? palace where I saw, among many other sacred Islam?c rel?cs, Moses' staff, Josephs' turban, the sword of Muhammed, and all of h?s fr?ends' swords, b?ts of h?s beard (?t looked black), one of h?s footpr?nts (the r?ght foot), h?s sandals (the footpr?nt was MUCH larger than the sandal could have accommodated), and some stuff from Dav?d and others. I never knew that these th?ngs were here.

On the tour I met th?s guy "M", from vegas and h?s f?ance "T", from Kyrg?stan and we went to the B?g Mall on Thursday. It reallyt wasn't so b?g. Then on Fr?day "M" and I went to a truk?sh bath. As I ment?ned yesterday ?t was heavenly.

Turkey ?s r?ght now ?n the process of chang?ng ?ts currency. Bas?cally ?t ?s slash?ng s?x zeroes off everyth?ng, so there are far fewer m?ll?ona?res here now. But ?t ?s confus?ng because people use two d?fferent currenc?es at the same t?me. You pay ?n a m?xture of new and old Turk?sh L?ra. So for example ?f someth?ng cost 9 1/2 L?ra, you can pay 5 New L?ra + 4,000,000 Old L?ra, plus some handful of co?ns that you have to trust the store keeper to f?gure out. A L?ra ?s about 80 cents, so you are OK. But ?t ?s all confus?ng.

Today ?s my last full day ?n Turkey, as I leave tomorrow for Israel. I th?nk I w?ll take ?t easy and have lunch ?n Ortakoy, the r?tzy sect?on of town. Maybe I'll take ?n a museum too.

S?nce Thursday there has been a fest?val of the sacr?f?c?ng of (or rather fa?lure to sacr?f?ce) Ishmael by Abraham. Apparently there were many sheep sacr?f?ced. Somehow I d?d not get to see any of them. I really d?d want to sacr?f?ce a sheep. The way the story goes, a th?rd of the sheep goes to one's fam?ly, a th?rd to one's ne?ghbors, and a th?rd to the poor. None to the tour?st. Because of th?s hol?day many th?ngs are closed, so tour?ng ?s a b?t slower, and on the plu s?de, I th?nk that publ?c transportat?on ?s free. So I have not really been pay?ng for ?t. At least I hope ?t ?s free.

More to come.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Bath

I have a lot to wr?te, but I have to say today ? d?d the bath.

Three words: So worth it.

Or just one: Amaz?ng.

You cannot go to Turkey and not take a Turkish bath. Get the Massage too.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005


I have spent the last day or two ?n Istanbul. I am here alone, as "E" was unable to make ?t. I am staying ?n this hotel ?n Taks?m, near Taks?m square. I landed on Monday morn?ng, and slept for the rest of monday. Monday n?ght I went to Istaklal and wandered around the market. They sell all sorts of we?rd stuff there. I saw a tray of sheep heads, and qu?te a lot of people sell?ng l?ttle jars of redd?sh-brown stuff labeled as "Turk?sh v?agra". It was all very amus?ng.

Today I went and saw a whole bunch of the Jewish stuff w?th Mahmet, my gu?de. I went to the Neveh Shalom Synagogue (wh?ch was attacked tw?ce, once ?n 1986 and aga?n ?n 2003), two other synagogues, a Jew?sh Hosp?tal/nursing home, and two Jew?sh cemeteries. I left my gu?de then went to the Jew?sh museum (where I met two older Israelis).

I took the tram back to Istaklas and had lunch at Kafe Ara, and I am now try?ng hard to deal w?th th?s Turk?sh keyboard.

Istanbul ?s an ?nterest?ng city. It ?s hard to know whether ?t belongs in Europe or ?n the Middle East. So far everyone has been pretty n?ce. I have not run in to any major problems. Gett?ng by only ?n Engl?sh ?s a bit tr?cky but not imposs?ble (It would be easier ?f I were less shy.).

Th?s c?ty seems to me to be a great sett?ng for a spy novel or f?lm. It has all the trapp?ngs that you would expect. There ?s the modern European soph?st?cat?on here and there, but there ?s also the very strong old Islam?c ?nfluence. Lots of h?story, but lots of modern?ty too. One can see how people from both the Or?ent and Occ?dent would feel at home here.

The c?ty is very secular, but every few m?nutes someth?ng rem?nds you of the Islam?c s?de of Turkey. It m?ght be the call to prayer, or the comfort that almost wherever you go, even ?f you cannot understand the menu, you are most l?kely not eat?ng pork, or the ub?qu?tous mosques.

I w?ll explore more ton?ght,

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Off for vacation

I am off to Istanbul now. It promises to be a fun week. Then to Israel. I hope I will be able to meet with friends and see the sights. You'll hear more from me as internet access permits.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Odd Conversation

I was down at my army base on friday and I was telling this Colonel who I am friends with that I am going on a short vacation to Istanbul and Israel. When I mentioned Israel, he got this really uncomfortable look on his face and started lecturing me about being careful and what to avoid, etc. I was then thinking that he is fully prepared to send me to Iraq, where there is real violence, yet he is unsure that I can handle myself in a Jerusalem Bar.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Confirmation bias

I keep talking about confirmation bias. That is the psychological condition whereby people's beliefs about an argument have little to do with the argument, but rather whether they like the results or not. Here is someone who apparently decided to retest these, but using political questions. The results are pretty interesting. The researchers found that they could accurately predict 80% of the time what a response to various questions would be based soley on the subject's political views.

The researchers asked a question about soldiers and torture. In one version of the experiment subjects were presented with strong evidence that the soldier was in the right, and in the other version they were not given the evidence. It turns out that it makes no difference. The subjects' views were split along party lines. Evidence is irrelevant.

During the Clinton-Lewinsky thing they found that regardless of how well or poorly informed one was about the Lewinsky affair, their condemnation or not, was predicted by their party affilation.

The list goes on.

What this shows is that knowledge makes little difference to people who offer their opinions. Most people make decisions based on something that bares little relation to logic or facts or common sense. They decide on their guts and their feelings. Guts and feelings are useless when we are trying to get at good decisions about most things. (Instincts, are by the way, reliable, but only for certain things.)

So next time you hear an opinion being supported by "facts and logic" look carefully. There is usually nothing but some convoluted justification for a gut feeling.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

It is Frustrating Trying to Understand the Arab/Muslim world

Even when the US is only helping out in Sri Lanka for the Tsunami relief they are still seen as invaders by the local Mujahidin. (Oh, and while we're at it, I am sure you've seen this picture. Look carefully at the T-shirt in the background.)

But more perplexing is what I am not getting today. According to every poll in the Arab/Muslim world, the 9/11 hijackings are widely believed to have been done by Jews. But now, according to the latest poll, only 35% of Jordanians and 22% of Palestinians believe that the hijackings count as terrorist acts.

So most believe they were done by Jews but they were not really acts of terrorism. Go figure. Of course, the same poll has almost everything else the Jews do as being a terrorist act. You can notice that the Palestinians seem to think anything done to them is a terrorist act.

But as I have said, before, confirmation bias overides consistency. Most people will just believe what they want to believe, regardless of how little sense they are making.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Review of Bernard Lewis' The Assassins

Bernard Lewish is one of our leading thinkers about the Middle Mast. His 1967 book The Assassins is a contribution to the field of medieval Islamic history. It chronicles a sect of Ismailis, who were known as the Assassins, and were likely the world's first real terrorists. They were syatematic in their methodology of political assassination.

Personally I do not have sufficient training in medieval Islamic history to fully appreciate the book. Too many of the names were very unfamiliar and I think that it would have been better had I read a good overview of medieval Islam before I went in to a detail such as this.

It is not a bad book, but for I would not say if is for the lay audience, such as myself, unless you have some good background.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

"Support Our Troops"

My sister got me a green "support Our Troops" bracelet. This is the kind that is supposed to resemble the Lance Armstrong yellow version, except these are from 7-11. Onthe back of the bracelet, it says clearly "Made In China". I am not sure what to make of that. It is reminiscient of the beret scandal of a while back.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Poland Needs Scapegoat, Hunts Jew

Here is an interesting piece. Poland wants Israel to extradite one Mr. Morel, age 86 for crimes against humanity.

Here is some background. Around 1946 and 1947 Poland (under Stalin's Juristiction) etnically cleansed itself of all its Germans, many of whom had been there for many generations. This amounted to the expusion of over 11 and a haf million people - the largest expusion in history. In the process over a million and a half people died and were killed. Some were killed while being "denazified" and others on their flight out of Polish territory. There were ostensively two main reasons for these deaths. The first was revenge. The second, and more important, was greed. There was the opportunity to seize a lot of land from Germans, as well as property and currency.

While there is some scholarship about this, Poland is not big on confronting its role in this ethnic cleansing. Suddenly they have found a scapegoat. No, it is not the barbaric culture that was WWII era Poland. No, it was not Stalin who ran camps. No it was not the Poles, who actually benefited from this. No. It was the people who had just lost their families in gas chambers and were themselves just liberated from Auschwitz. They are the criminals.

I cannot imagine how one judges someone who was just liberated from a concentration camp where 30 members of his family perished. But apparently Poland can. After all if you can blame the Jew, then the real culprit - the then-Polish Government - can wash its hands of the matter. Someone learned the lessons of history well - and they are trying really hard to repeat it.

Do it in My Name

I am a big fan of helping other countries who need it. I live in the strongest, richest, and most generous nation the planet has ever seen, and it is really nice to help out when we can. So you won’t find me complaining too much when we send tons of aid to other countries. Personally I would love to see it done more by private citizens (who are responding more than generously) and less by government (who is also being pretty generous). But now is not the time to let ideology get in the way of the fastest relief effort we can muster. I am also pretty happy too see the US give freely of its military in aiding the disaster relief. After all, it doesn't take a Clausewitz to point out that the military is the only thing that makes most of our foreign policy meaningful. Aiding a number of foreign countries using our military is only natural. Also, the military has the capacity to do this in a way that no other organization on the planet can. (Being in a logistical support unit, I know how capable we are of moving a LOT of stuff quickly.)

But I was wondering, where are the people who have been complaining all along.

After all, investing American resources in foreign countries contributes to globalization. It does so by putting foreign goods in poorer countries. It builds political capital for the US in poor countries. It allows the US military, US aid workers, international aid workers, international investors, and many others to pour capital in to reconstructing the devastated parts of the land. And imagine the horror when some US architects and engineers start rebuilding houses and someone discovers that they bear some resemblance to American/European architecture and engineering. We will have ruined their culture.

Secondly, I do not remember seeing any reports that there are other Tsunamis. We have no reason to suspect that we should be there trying to protect anyone from future Tsunami attacks. Sure, the region is more likely to have another one, but our helping now won't do anything about it. So why are we bothering to help?

Thirdly, I am sure my liberal friends are thinking, there is no relation between tsunamis and terrorism. We do know that Sri Lanki relief efforts are being headed up by the Tamils (which we cannot control) and we know Qaeda was attempting to train to attack targets in Indonesia, but that hardly counts. We found no evidence that they were responsible for the tsunami. Why would we help them if we cannot show conclusively that there is a relation between Bin Laden and the tsunami? I suspect we are giving aid under false pretexts.

The fourth questions liberals should be asking is: what's the rush? Don't we realize that we spent about 8 months talking about how fast we are rushing to war in Iraq - and that was not nearly enough. This morning Some Democrats plan to complain to Congress about how the president took about a day or two too long to officially acknowledge the tsunami. We need a long national debate on this tsunami issue. What is a few more months compared to the millions we are investing?

Fifth, where is the UN? Do we have a coalition in place yet? Of all the Arab and Muslim countries, so far only 4 of them have pledged anything. And, their generosity has so far been a whopping $24 million dollars (sic). (So far that is about 1/4 of what American PRIVATE citizens have given mostly by clicking online.) No word on what the Arab public has offered, but if it is anything like their government, I am glad that the Sri Lankis are not dependent on them for too much else. So even though a nice chunk of the victims were Muslim, and I believe a vast majority of the survivors are, we can't really be sure that they want our help. Shouldn't we have a "global test" or something? Wait to see if the world responds and then go along with that. Let's not be impetuous and start helping beleaguered countries until we are SURE that 100% of the citizens of that country, and of all the other countries in the world are on board. Don't believe the propaganda you see on the mainstream media like Fox News showing grateful Malaysians. They are just showing what the administration wants you too see. Read the alternative sources (who are really too oppressed to express their voices right now) and hear about how US aid is really ruining their country by importing all this cheap water and inferior blankets. Worse, I bet we have even given them antibiotics which were made by outsourcing US jobs.

To recapitulate, there is no evidence of other tsunamis. If there were, I am not sure they pose a threat to US interests, and even if there are and they do, helping the Sri Lankis will not help. So in the absence of a global test and many months of debate it would seem that any clear thinking liberal would find this method of exporting our brand of food, clothing, shelter and culture to the "victims" of a bad global disaster, despicable.

So like many other recent events, aid to Sri Lanka is one that I am happy to have done in my name. But I am bracing for the protesters who want to Act Now to end Aid and Racism in their name.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Review of David Friedman's Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life

Can one really analyze everything in terms of economics? David Friedman in his Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life thinks that it is obvious that you can. After reading him, one is inclined to agree. This is one of those books that almost forces you to agree with it. It is really good. Having never learned Micro Economics formally I was really glad for the opportunity.

First we learn that economics is not about money. It is really about explaining and understanding a whole range of human behaviours. Friedman's examples range from war to marraige and much in between. Friedman answers all sorts of questions like: "Who gets how much and why", and when do prices go up, and when do they go down. There are also other important questions discussed. Who benefits from Tarrifs? (Small special intersts.) Who looses? (Almost everyone else.) Who benefits from rent stabilization in New York? (people living in New York) Who Looses (Their Children, and everyone else who needs a place in the city.)

There is much debunking of old economic dogmas that someone should have told me years ago. Stopping the sale of Ivory will not save the elephants. Tarrifs do not protect American workers from foreign products. Putting legal restrictions on housing contracts helps hurts everyone.

The heros of the book are the classical figures we've all heard of but never read or understood: Adam Smith, Ricardo, Pareto, and of course (the author's father) Milton Friedman.

To be completely honest, I have no way of veryifying the content of the book. The book is not a very easy read. I cannot tell whether or not he pulled something over me, hidden in an unsupported graph. But I suspect he did not. What I did understand (a good 85%) was clear and sound. I would encourage everyone who wants some grasp of how things work, wnd why we make the choices we make, to read this book.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Party at My Place

I had a party last night. It was New Years for those who missed it on Friday night. I am happy that the guests who showed up, showed up. FOM, Popculture, and Mensa were here, as were some people I have not seen in a while.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone.

Last night I watched the fireworks in the East River south of Battery Park. They were quite nice. Many neighborhood people were there. I had a good time.