Saturday, April 30, 2005

My day in the Army

Say you are in an organization. Say this organization is literally one of the biggest bureaucracies on the planet, on the order of two to three million people. Now imagine you are trying to do something that is not anyone’s job to do though in theory it is possible. Say there are few people throughout the organization who do know how to do this, but there is no way to find out who they are or how to get in touch with them. Further, say that this task benefits the organization as a whole, but (except for you) does not really benefit anyone else.

Good luck getting it done.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Sin City

Last night I saw Sin City. I really liked the movie. It was very gory at parts but in a very comic book kind of way. It was the most fun I had at the movies in a while. Of course I really don't get out much.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Review of Leavitt and Dubner's Freakonomics

Freakonomics is the work of Steven Leavitt and the writing of Stephen Dubner. Leavitt, as many of you may recall demonstrated a bunch of months ago that the main cause of lowered crime in the mid-90s in the US was that it was the time when all the babies who were aborted because of Roe v. Wade were not mugging people as teenagers.

Naturally this makes him an ingenuous thinker and so I got the book. Who would have thought of that? The book is actually pretty good. It starts off with a brief explanation of incentives and just runs from there. The book shows how you can catch school teachers when they are cheating in order to inflate their students' grades. It shows how the venerable institution of Sumo wrestling in Japan is rife with fixed matches. The economics of drug dealing are discussed, as are some of the factors that goes in to making for successful child-rearing. There is a nice discussion of the economics of real estate (hint: the agent is not your friend). And a favorite topic of mine is discussed: names. Apparently poor people eventually take the names of rich people.

The contents of the book are good. What I really did not like about the book is that it was really quick. There was way too little packed in to the book to make it worth it. This is one of those books where you go in expecting it to take you a few weeks to read and have it so jam-packed with stuff that you are wishing you could remember it all, but know you cant. What you get instead is a few well-written bits. The bits are nice and valuable, but one hopes for more, and you can finish the book in a day if you have patience.

Leavitt is really bright, and an intriguing thinker. Let's hope he has a long career.

Added 5/2/05:In addition to being the object of reviews in every newspaper I have read, Leavitt is excerpted in this month's Wired, and also in The Week, Interviewed in New York Magazine, and the subject of a particularly moronic editorial in Time Out New York.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Richard Popkin Dies

Richard Popkin, a renowned historian of philosophy died last Thursday. He really was a great historian of philosophy and his loss will be severe to philosophy. Everyone who has studied philosophy at all benefited from his work.

I once heard a story about him that always struck me as admirable. I am not sure if the story is true, but it is of the type that I wish they will be telling about me one day.

Scholars are often very tight-lipped about their research. For fear of plagiarism or just to be safe, scholars will often not share their work with others. This was especially true in the says before everyone was using computers and putting drafts of their work on the web.

It was once told that Popkin had the only copy of a typescript of one of books in his car when the car was stolen. He was nonetheless able to recover the whole manuscript by going back to his colleagues and asking for the individual chapters.

There was always something admirable about being so generous with your scholarship. There was also something very worth admiring about someone whose scholarship was so interesting that there were others he knew who would be interested in all of his work.

Tatoo day

Yesterday was officially Tatoo Day in New York. Tatoo day is the first day that it is hot enough, and you get to notice that there are all these people who have tatoos that you never would have suspected.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Orthodox Jewish Feminists

The world changes. Because of that, the institutions we form have to adapt. Those which cannot adapt die. They loose relevance and are no longer meaningful to their people. Orthodox Judaism may be at a crossroads with respect to the relevance of women. How can Orthodoxy adapt?

Unlike with Christianity, the locus of Jewish life has always been the home. Many of the holiday rituals, the Sabbath, the food laws, and some rites of passage (like weddings and circumcisions) all took place in the home, not the synagogue. These were not communal issues. Much of what Judaism was about was centered in the home. Much of childrearing too was a domestic issue.

Anything that was a domestic issue was firmly in the domain of women. The role of the woman of the house was to tend to all the vital religious functions while the man was off earning a living. Women had quite a bit of religious authority and responsibility once upon a time. Kosher was a full time job. So was preparing for the holidays, and raising children, especially daughters.

Unlike the case of Catholicism, Judaism has no hierarchy. There is no pope or head rabbi whose word is law, and can decide policy and outlook for all of Judaism. Each community did as it saw fit. Each was a bit different. Each household could have been slightly unique as well. The individual customs and traditions were preserved by those who ran the house, with some credence given to the community.

After WWII (roughly) things changed. Judaism became more communal. Food preparation no longer required real knowledge beyond not mixing milk and meat and being able to recognize the OU and OK symbols. Major organizations take care of this. The synagogue plays a larger role in community life; women no longer educate their sons or more importantly, their daughters. The transmit ion of knowledge is no longer oral. It is written, and becoming more and more uniform and homogeneous. People have more access and give more weight to the “big poskim” to determine Jewish law. These halachic decision makers have more and more sway over larger and larger groups of Orthodox Jews.

So what happens to the Jewish woman here? They have fewer and fewer religious roles to play. They are still needed as mother and such, but qua religious person, they are becoming obsolete. All their religious roles have been co-opted by men or the community. Given this, their power has also diminished. A man need no longer defer to his wife for food rules, child-rearing advice, or the proper time for the Sabbath. Without a role, they have less and less authority.

Hence, I am more and more sympathetic with the modern Orthodox Jewish woman who feels somewhat disenfranchised by her perceived lack of religious prominence.

What is the solution here?

I think that there are a few options available. The first option involves reinventing Orthodox Judaism to accommodate the women. To some extent this is being done. Judaism does keep up with the time, albeit not in real time, but in Jewish time – ie, with a severe lag. But the bigger issue is that I suspect it does not keep up enough. If they do not go far enough in reinventing Judaism they are left unsatisfied. This is the plight of most of or Orthodox Jewish women who are concerned about this. Other women do attempt to reinvent Judaism in their own image - so much so that that the brand of orthodoxy sounds foreign to many of their co-religionists. Egalitarian prayer services? Or worse, being >porush from the klall and having an all women’s service? That is no way to assert your place in Judaism – by showing you are now a separate faction – minyan and all.

No, the Orthodox woman does not need more rights. They do not need to reinvent Judaism. They need to reinvent themselves and make themselves relevant. Their skills, knowledge, and their very usefulness has been outsourced to cheaper and more efficient and centralized rabbis.

Judaism is a religion of action. The orthodox feminist agenda, at least the one which thinks that Orthodox Jews need some sort of revolution such that they play a larger role in Jewish life and achieve gender equity, will not be fulfilled by writing a few philosophical treatises and expounding on how women are and are not equal and how they should be. A real revolution will not take place after someone ordains the first female orthodox poseket, or whatever. That will just create a new faction of Jews. Change will come when Change will come when orthodox women do what orthodox men do – that is perform a necessary religio-social role. Men today build Jewish schools, give a lot of charity (THAT alone buys a lot of rabbinic clout), teach Orthodox children, and write stuff written for the frum community, (not the touchy-feely crap written for bored overly-pious women). Few Jewish mothers are capable of learning with their children after school. A fifth grader still has to wait for his father to review his Talmud. I can’t imagine there were too many women completed the daf yomi last cycle.

Until women can integrate themselves in to the wider community and serve the wider roles that men serve, or if not that, then find new roles that are useful to Orthodox Jews, they are fighting for privilege that they have not earned. Men have earned their place in Orthodoxy, in the olden days, women did too. Women who take the household to be paramount in Jewish life and feel bound to it religiously have also earned their place in Orthodoxy. Modern women who feel the household is not particularly fulfilling and feel shut out of the community, have not had an opportunity to prove themselves to the Jewish community. Orthodox Jews legitimately ask themselves “How are they relevant to religious life?” It may not be anyone’s fault; it may be the fault of the entrenched Jewish sociological infrastructure. But that is the reality. There are no short-cuts here, no affirmative action. Jews have to earn their right to have a voice. Jewish men who can’t speak intelligently about Judaism, can’t contribute to the religious organizations, or the overall religious life of the community have little voice. Jewish women are in the same position.

If women learn to walk the walk and talk the talk, that and only that will compel the community to take them seriously. But if everyone, including girls, can only learn with their fathers, then they will grow up thinking that it is their fathers that need to be taken seriously in Judaism. The feminist revolution in Judaism, if it is to happen at all, needs to be internal, that is is has to come from within the community, and it must be without tracts, or slogans, but a silent one that makes the phrase “ben torah” sound anachronistic.

This revolution will be democratic and free-market. If enough women can be convinced that this project will be worthwhile, then it will happen – with or without loud feminist complaints. If Orthodox Jewish women cannot be persuaded that this is in their interest, then the feminist push to change Orthodoxy will stay a loud and persistant, but very minority voice shouting at themselves.

Addendum: I came accross the following in Anderson and Zinsser'sA History of thir own, Vol I: Women in Europe from the Prehistory to the Present which parallels what I said about the fate of Orthodox Jewish women:
The nineteenth century marked the nadir of European women's powers and opportunities. In earlier eras, alternative authorities and customs , as well as regional, governmental, and religious variations, created a range of circumstances that enabled some European women to achieve relative independence and relative dominance. Gradually, however, the growing centralization, rationalization, and uniformity imposed in government, law, the economy, and religion worked to erode those options and further limited women's lives. (p xiii-xiv)
For Orthodox religious women, this still holds. The uniformity, rigidness, and centralization of practice has all but made women irrelevant in the spheres which they used to dominate. Unfortunately, (at least not as far as I've seen yet) this theme is not picked up on by Anderson and Zinsser (which is a bit disapointing given their sensitivity to the notion of marginalization).

Pope of personality

When one looks at the last elections, it seems pretty clear that people care more about who is leading them than what that person stands for. We all live in cults of personality. No one who voted for Kerry voted for his policy, because he obviously had none, but they voted against Bush.

We recently had occasion to see the biggest proof of this: Look at the Pope. Most Catholics have no love whatsoever for Catholic doctrine. Most favor divorce and remarriage. Most have no problem masturbating, using birth control, and think that the Church ought to have female priests. American Catholics were not particularly staunch anti-Communists, like the Pope was. Nor were they particularly philosemetic, like the pope.

The Pope spent his whole career fighting this, yet all these same people were totally enamored of him – at least if the reaction to his death is at all telling. The Pope’s doctrine seems to suck, but people have no problem thinking he is great anyway.

Sad world we live in.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Winning friends in the Middle East

Rami G Khouri has a editorial in the LA Times a few days ago about how to win friends in the Middle East. With all due respect, that piece is mostly a crock of sh*t.

Here are some of the claims:

(1) Style is important. People in the Middle East do not like to be bullied, even for their own good.

This might have some truth to it, although operatively, the people in the Middle East are all now bullied, and it is rarely for their own good, it is for the good of their bullies. So I am pretty sure that our bullying is an improvement, though it is still not ideal. Moreover, it is always pathetic to see people who say yes, you are doing what we want, but not fast enough, not nice enough, not the way we would like it. . . We are doing the best we can. If you don't help out, we will do it the only way we know how.

(2) Credibility is important. The US backs Israel, and doesn't do much to help the Palestinians (read: does not militarily force Israel to capitulate to Palestinian demands), so it looks hypocritical helping Iraq and Lebanon.

This is actually 100% true. The US Does help some countries in the Middle East and is not threatening to invade Israel. However here is a case where perceptions, however important, cannot be helped. The Arab world's failure to see reality for what it is cannot always be compensated for. The US has an interest in combating bizarre Arab perceptions of reality and the west. However, sometimes we naively hope that you are not as blind as your leaders know you are.

(3) Consistency in important.

This is just false. Arabs have no need for consistency. Any even cursory glance at Arab history will show that Arab allegiances change as often as preferred wives in a Persian harem. It is consistency that boggles the mind of most Arabs. They are asking themselves "Why does the US continues to support Israel even though now we seem to be more important?" This sticking with allies is bothersome, it is NOT the fact that we used to support a dictator and now we don't.

(For some historical examples: Jordan and Egypt made peace with Israel after invading them a few years before. Syria first supported the Christians in the Lebanon Civil War, then the Muslims. Jordan first helped the PLO then they massacred them. Arafat was allied with every group in Lebanon's civil war, until he stopped. The Saudis sit around and love the US for a million reasons, mostly to do with oil, and they sit around and promote anti-US terrorism. The Ba'ath regimes of Syria and Iraq were started together. (That's why they have the same name.) Then they hated each other. . .)

(4) Motive. We appear to have too many motives for being in Iraq. That is not good.

Here, I agree. We should just go in and say that the ousting of the Ba'ath regime is in the US interest, so we are doing it. The motives we give are for internal consumption. We need the motives to placate Americans, not Arabs. Sorry that you overheard.

(5) Context. Human rights and freedoms take second place to protection from foreign armies and stable statehood.

This is true. This is how the Arabs see the world. The US should change that. If your highest goal is stability, then you are about as sane as the woman who says a stable marriage where I get beaten daily is better than not being beaten daily but with the possibility of a new husband. I have too much sympathy for the woman and the countries who are beaten daily by their leaders to care if their relationships are stable.

Stability is the luxury, not freedom. The Arab world treats freedom as a luxury that you get after you have the necessity of stability of government. But here in the west we realize that government is not something anyone needs, except to the extent that it perpetuates individual freedoms. Somehow in the Arab world Government is seen as a necessity, that is so important that it overrides freedoms. Our goal is to change this, not to see it your way.

(6) Legitimacy. The US does not have the international legitimacy to go ahead with what it is doing.

Since when did anyone in the Arab world care about international legitimacy unless it was to suit their own interests? Since when does anyone? The Arabs are NOT the people in the world who sit around worrying about how to implement UN resolutions, unless the resolutions are in their interest. How many Arab states recognize the State of Israel? The UN CREATED Israel in 1948. Of course the Same Arabs recognize that the state of Israel that they do not recognize and the same UN who they couldn't care less about have recognized Israel have a vital resolution about Israel resolving the Palestinian Issue.

Please, Mr. Khouri, don't feed us this crap about Arabs worrying about international legitimacy. They are worried about their interests.

(7) Militarism. Only Washington and Neocons (read: Jews) do things using military force.

I laughed as I read this. I cant believe that in the Arab world there is no understanding of militarism's ability to get things done. The Arab world INVENTED a hundred new methods of violence to get things done. Both ancient and modern terrorism was invented by the Arab world. Car bombs still resolve all sorts of political feuds. Honor killings still resolve family issues in most of the Arab world. No Arab country is immune from force as a way of life. What kind of false picture are you trying pass off to us gullible Americans?

(8) Relevance. People care more about their asabiyeh, their tribe, or their family or group then they do about individual freedoms.

I couldn't agree more. So? How is what we are doing counter to this? Parliaments allow for this sort of thing, and we knew that setting up a US style democracy would not take your particular tribalisms in to account, but setting up this sort of confessionalist government in Iraq, like they have in Lebanon, we are attempting to accomplish both ideals. Remember, that just because you Arabs prioritize the tribe over the individual, does not imply that you do not value individual freedoms, it just says that where you can't have both you'd sacrifice one for the other. I know, but no Arab in his or her right mind will tell you that he would rather have ONLY freedom for his group when offered freedom for his group and his person.

(Hat Tip: FOM.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

One way the Democrats are screwing up

I know nothing about parenting. Neither did my parents at one point. So I never learned anything about parenting. But I do have some intuitions about some things that children need. I was wondering if there are parents out there who can back me up. If I am way off then my analogy is flawed, and this is all wrong, but I think I am on to something.

I strongly suspect that children (and adults too) need to see that their caregiver is decisive. They need to see that their caregiver has rules, boundaries, and inspires confidence. Their caregiver cannot be wishy washy, should not waver, should motivate their children, etc.

I wonder what kind of child will be raised by someone who is unsure what their children should be doing, cannot decide when bedtime is, what they can eat, what clothing is appropriate, what constitutes proper sexual behavior, what their attitude should be toward alcohol, relationships, drugs, etc. Parents need to present a united and decisive front on most issues.

I would guess that when parents don't, their children loose faith in their parents. When children are very young they need to believe that their parents can handle all situations, and more over, know what to do at all times. I would not be very inspired by parents who had no social, intellectual, or moral, compass that they were motivated to pass on to their children.

Democrats seem to be in the same boat as parents from the 60's. Few convictions, few beliefs, and a hesitancy to speak up on any issue except how bad "the man" (ie, Bush) is. The Democrats need to grow up and start acting like responsible leaders. When there is an issue they need to take a stand.

The Republicans always take stands. Their stands might be stupid, arrogant, inconsistent, annoying and wrong, but they take stands. They will always let you know what they think, and what their moral vision is on any given issue. They may even change their minds from time to time. But at any given time, they have a view.

The Democrats lost the election because they had no position whatsoever on anything. Kerry, Moore, and had no problem bitching and complaining about Bush and other authority figures. In that respect they were all acting like adolescents. Who the hell wants to have an angry teenager as your ruling political party, or your president. People want a leader who can lead strongly. People want decisions. People want a president who is given authority for four years because they have a vision of how the country should be and they agree with it.

No one in this country agreed with Kerry's vision for the future of America. Not because his vision was dumb, but because he either has none or he chose not to tell us what it was.

Most recently when Terry Schiavo was allowed to die, the Republicans had no problem telling us what they thought, and how it fit in to their moral vision for America. The Democrats probably believed the opposite, but you wouldn't know it from following the news. No protests asserting her right to die, no Major democrats getting up and holding press conferences, no Howard Dean telling us that anything. Where the heck is the Democratic leadership?

I suspect that there are a lot of Democrats out there who would vote for a Democrat if the Democrats would exhibit leadership instead of adolescent rage all the time. I very well might. Who is the person making sure that Democrats stay obscure? Who is making sure that everyone has beliefs about the Democratic party that they cannot verify?

The Democrats have to take a lesson from Republicans and good parents. Show that you are strong, show that you are leaders, and show that you care about the fate of the country and that you have a plan for its future. If they do so, the voters might treat them like leaders.