Friday, March 25, 2005


So I started out with a sort of fast on Ta'anit Esther where I just had a lot of coffee. OK, so that technically is not fasting unless you are Catholic, but that is just how things worked out. I did not really have time to eat.

"A-" and I heard Megillah in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and then had some pizza and then did the Daf.

We then went to Crobar where there was this huge party with lots of people and an optional Megillah reading at midnight. "C" was there, as was "Y" and his wife. I met a former student "E" and a "A-"'s cousin "S". I mostly drank and danced. It was fun. I got home at around 5AM and woke up in the morning and went to a Purim meal at my parents' house.

Happy Purim.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Review of Benyus' Biomimicry

Janine M. Benyus' Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature spends the whole book trying to make the following point: Nature has found some pretty clever ways of solving certain problems, and we would be wise to learn from them. I am very much in agreement with that sentiment. We need lots of things done, and we would be wise to learn from the way nature does things. The whole book is about examples of researchers who look to nature for inspiration and answers to our problems.

All that is fine and good. I am not sure why this is new, but she writes this with the verve of a manifesto, and not in a good way. We have to solve problems. Nature s efficient, and as soon as we can mimic nature, we can get the efficiencies that we need too.

He science is disappointing. One never gets the impression that she really understands what she is talking about, but that she is repeating the "oversimplified" formulations of the real scientists she interviewed. I was particularly annoyed with her 46 pages on "how we will conduct business" that displayed no evidence of speaking with an economist or businessperson.

Sometimes she simply fawns over the people she met along the way. This book is very flaky, or rather its author is. If I was in a related scientific field, I would assume that all the people working on topics in the book are cooks or flakes too. I would not be motivated to pursue these things for fear of having to be associated with the fringe of my profession. The book has the usual eco-touchy-feely science that you expect in junk science. Every few pages we are told of the native peoples and their "wisdom" that we are forgetting, as if this is somehow greatly superior to all we have accomplished. (If it was so superior, how come all the native peoples have disappeared? They were superior in that they were good at one environment, they could not adapt, so they all perished. Us people with technology can adapt to new environments, so we are still here. Whose wisdom is superior now?)

Mind you she doesn't bother telling us that nature is cruel, and we should start taking lessons there. Plants that are not as pushy as others die. No animal in the wild dies of old age. They get killed as soon as they are too slow to escape from their predators. They have many children that die in infancy of starvation, disease, and from local predators. Nature relies on these cruelties for its "sustainability". We are never told that this is necessary so that nature can do what it does. If it is not, we are never told how to get around it.

Many of the chapters of the book are really just analogies to natural processes. Nature "recycles", so we should recycle. Dull stuff.

I am of course sympathetic with the fact that we need to not destroy our planet. But there are very sensible free market ways to do, and they are hardly addressed. The author wants to promote an earth-harmony agenda, and not real solutions. Some sensible economic policies, like the internalizing of externalities (paying for polluting, etc) in CFCs, fossil fuel burning, and water pollution should take care of a lot of this.

I do not need a manifesto to tell me that it would be great if we can artificially make silk with the same input as spiders have. Which industry wouldn't want that? I am not sure I see her point.

This book is great if you love touchy-feely science, and being intellectually rigorous is not on the top of your list of priorities.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The New Purses

Anyone who has been in New York lately, say the past year or so has noticed that lots and lots of women now use the pretty little bags they get from Victoria Secret as a purse. It is not just that lots of people walk around a lot with their most recent underware purchases in their bags, but many women actually use these bags for weeks to carry stuff.

I am sure these are sturdy bags, and it is great to see them being used over and over (I am sure my enviornmentalist friends are somewhat happy here). But after a little while they get all creased, and it really makes many otherwise normal-looking women look homeless - when they rifle through their bags full of crap just to pull out their buried Metrocard or lipstick.

I am not sure what I actually think of this phenomenon. My gut tells me that there is something very kitchy about all this, but my gut has been very wrong about these things.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Selling candy on trains

I have been noticing for the past few months on the NY Subways that there are lots of kids selling candy. In the old days they would walk on with this spiel about how they needed money for uniforms for their basketball team or for some school trip. Now the new pitch is " My name is Jamal (or something), I am here selling candy. I am not seeling for my baskeyball team or for a school trip. I am selling candy so I can have some money in my pocket and stay out of trouble. Unfortunatly I only have peanut m&ms and Skittles. Would anyone like to buy some cnady?".

I find this pitch refreshinly honest. I rarely eat candy, or buy from them, but an appeal to good 'ole American capitalism and its ability to keep our cities a bit safer seems to work.

I have seen this done mostly by black males, but some black females too. Generally I see one or two people per train buy them. This is the same amount I saw when it was the seller announced that this sale was going for some noble cause.

Honest pitches generate trust. There is nothing more honest than admiting that you just want to make money. There is no reason not to trust the seller. I bet they don't loose money.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Monday, March 14, 2005

Pi Day

Happy Pi Day everyone. Hopefully you are all out there celebrating Geek Culture, eating Pi, and rejoicing in the irrational.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Review of Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox

I have been lately having a discussion about the nature of history. E. H. Carr has a famous view that there are no historical facts. He seems to be making an ontological point, though I think that reading charitably, he may want to be making a methodological point about history or at worst an epistemological point.

One sees an epistemological version of this point in Isaiah Berlin's view of Tolstoy's view of history. In his now classic The Hedgehog and the Fox: an essay on Tolstoy's view of history Berlin analyzes the view that Tolstoy takes, both from the clues he gives up on War and Peace and also in other writings, of history.

A few salient points. First, Tolstoy rejected the Marxist view of history, and also almost every other view that breaks down history is to some manageable set of laws. Tolstoy claims that this cannot really be done because of the numerous things that go in to making up history. He also rejected the notion that it is the great figures who make (shape) history. The lives of ordinary people are important, significant, and relevant, but cannot, even when put all together, explain all of history.

The problem Tolstoy seems to have is epistemological. We cannot assimilate (integrate) everything that happened, and we cannot easily make a coherent picture of it.

The book also gives us a good picture of Tolstoy's intellectual debts, especially those to Maistre.

If you care about Tolstoy or philosophical questions about history this is a worthwhile book.

Friday, March 04, 2005

What I like about Jew - you really know how to learn

Earlier this week the cycle ended. Many, mostly orthodox, Jews completed the 2,711-day cycle that is the reading of the Talmud. The Talmud is not a book that one reads, but rather a text that one studies. In about 7 and a half years many people complete the study of the whole talmud.

To celebrate there is a Party in Madison Square Garden and simeltaneously in some other places.

I think this is the largest gathering of Jews anywhere. It is quite remarkable that Jews can get together by the hundred thousand to celebrate the completion of an act of scholarship. Not everone who went completed the cycle, but that is what it was about. It is probably what I like most about Jews these days - they can all agree on the importance of learning.

This is like a whole percent of all Jews who showed up. I am glad Qaieda didn't know about this. I also wonder what the scalpers were charging.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


Today's Columbia Spectator had two pieces offering support to returning ROTC to Columbia. I think they are both very right headed, and I thought I could add to the discussion.

The ROTC program is a way to train officers for the US military. The officers take a regular curriculum of studies in college, and also classes that pertain to their military career. During the Vietnam era, many of the liberal campuses kicked ROTC off their campus. The government has been rather unsuccessful at forcing their way back on since then.

But it seems to me that liberal universities like Columbia ought to really want ROTC back on their campus. There are a number of reasons why. First, I think that by default a college ought to offer as many opportunities to its students as they can afford, providing they are within the bounds of what is legal and moral. If you think that having armies in general is immoral, then we really have nothing to say to each other. You may not like them, but sometimes we just need them. If you think a country can get on fine without one, . . . well, we are going to sit around and call each other naive. So ROTC seems like a wonderful opportunity for some students that want to see the military as a future career, or see being a reservist as a great opportunity.

So I think that it is incumbent on the anti-ROTC activist to defend why she is opposed to it. Here are the reasons commonly given.

1) The military has a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy about homosexuals. Thus it does not promote the progressive dogmas that academics espouse. Thus it is a force to be barred from campus.

This is true. The military does have this policy. Perhaps it is old fashioned. Perhaps it is necessary. The British military just gave it up. Perhaps the US military will too. Clinton tried, and the higher ups in the military hated him for it, and he spent a bunch of his presidency not being taken seriously by the military. There is a belief in the military that homosexuals will be bad for morale and unit cohesion and will make the US military branches less effective fighting forces. This is partially a matter for empirical study (to see if it is true), and partially a decision to see if the military wants to attempt to make people get over their homophobia, in the same way that they made millions of southerners get over their racism by integrating blacks in to the military.

One thing is certain. As long as the military officer corps is made up of people with theology degrees from Bob Jones Christian Bible College in Alabama (or whatever) there will be no gays in the military. As long as the officer corps is kept free of people who had liberal educations, as long as they had very homophobic educations, the officer corps will stay homophobic.

I have no real belief about what is better for the military - to allow gays in or not. But if you do, you should want officers who went to liberal universities represented. If your liberal university refuses to host an ROTC program, then you are contributing to the problem.

2) A second challenge to ROTC is always that liberal institutions do not like the government or the military, and thus wants no part of it, and does not want to be involved in training the future soldiers of the US.

This is a silly argument. No one thought to shut down the economics programs or Public Administrations programs because they do not like the economic systems or politicians in the US. On the contrary, if you want to change an institution, you do not let other people train the people who are in it and think it will then change to suit your needs because you are ignoring it. If you do not like the way something is getting done, train your own people to do it. Tell them how you want it done.

The military will not get better if you keep well trained people out of it. The army will also not disappear just because you don't like it. You have to learn to compromise. Work with the Army, and the Army will have to work with you, whether they want to or not. Work against the Army, and they will ignore you, and you will be irrelevant when it comes to decision making. Thinking you can fight this from the outside is ridiculous. The army will exist as long as other countries have armies or weapons. I don't see that happening anytime soon.

3) There is also a fear that the ROTC will be used as government mouthpieces on campus. This may be true. But of course I really do not see what is wrong with a government mouthpiece. In a world where the government does represent a large (at least 50%) part of the people, should their voice not be heard in Americas leading institution. Of course ROTC must not be used as government thugs, and that goes without saying, but outside the Academic catechism of Faith, there is nothing that says that we should not hear voices that are unpopular.

4) There are many complaints about racism in the military. This is not the kind where blacks or whites or Jews are mistreated or anything like that. I am sure that happens, but the Army deals with that. I have never see it though. But what I am talking about is that blacks make up a proportionate amount of the enlisted personnel. That is good. But they make up a disproportionately small number of the officer corps. That is bad. So of the real decision-makers, they are disproportionately white, and of the people who die in combat, blacks are proportionately represented. That is unfair. The reason for this is now obvious.

To become an officer, you have to have gone to college. The liberal universities which try to recruit minorities are also so liberal that they do not have ROTC. So the opportunities for becoming an officer are closed to blacks, not because of the military, but rather because of the liberal institutions themselves. The ROTC needs to follow the minorities. But the liberal institutions close the military to their students. Bringing ROTC back will reopen officer doors to minorities.

Arguments for ROTC exist too:

1) A program like ROTC may be one of the few ways for some people to afford college. Keeping ROTC off your campus is perpetuating a classist system where only rich people can attend, and it is yet another barred against poor people at your school.

2) The diversity that those training with a military perspective brings should also be tempting. I can tell you that the military and the university is a study in contrasts. Where else will you have such a wonderful and important clash of ideas over such fundamental issues we face as a society.

Return ROTC because you want to be the one to have educated the next secretary of defense, not some racist, homophobic, religious fanatic college down south.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Snot-nosed kids in Park Slope

I am coming in to this story rather late, I know. But it has been on my mind a lot. Some sixth graders in Park Slope, Brooklyn (not all that far from me) were assigned, by their teacher to send letters to soldiers in Iraq. Somehow these letters made their way to Korea instead, and went to a young private from New Jersey stationed near the North Korean border. Many of these letters were filled with contempt for soldiers, President Bush, and the war. Moreover, they were insisting that the soldiers will be dieing by the tens of thousands, and few of them will come home. They also wondered why the soldiers sit around and shoot civilians and destroy mosques.

Now, I remember what it was like to be in sixth grade. I knew nothing about how the world worked. War was something on TV and in movies. Shooting civilians, insurgents, terrorists, etc were all the same to me. I coun't keep track of all these things. I could barely tell our guys from their guys. When I was in sixth grade the only way I could have said something that would have even resembled an opinion was if someone was feeing me lines that I could just repeat.

And I know that some kids in JHS51 in Brooklyn are not getting a much better education than I got in sixth grade.

All this means that we have teachers and parents who are too scared to send letters to soldiers in Iraq in their own name, so they indoctrinate their children, and have them write letters. Pathetic. Adults should not have to hide behind thier children to criticize a president by insulting and demoralizing a 20-year old who knows little more about what is going on than anyone else.

A democratic education starts when we educate children with facts. We don't feed them horror-story make-believe lines about how everyone is going to die, and how Americans sit around and burn-down mosques. We don't scare children in to believing something that is contrary to common sense in the name of educaating them.

The electorate in this country is getting dumber and dumber. The fault lies squarely with those who value ideology over education. The right does it with evolution and religion, the left does it with politics, religion, ethics, and rationality.

That teacher should be fired, not because he sits around and hates the system who provides him with the freedom to hate the system, but because he is violating everything important about human dignity. Humans should be able to look at the world and make up their own minds. If students have already made up their minds by sixth grade, it means that someone has done it for them. They have been intellectually raped. They deserve better.