Thursday, June 23, 2005

Flag burning

I am very very sympathetic with both sides of the flag burning issue. Recently the US House of representatives passed an anti-burn bill. It is unlikely though that it will pass in the senate. But we'll see.

I am sure if it passes we can expect a spate of jokes with the punchline "well, in Syria they can burn the American flag all they want, and here we can't, so they are freer than we are."

On the other hand one can get all philosophical and legal about things like treason, fighting words, national symbols, liberty, etc. . .

But I have a very clear gut reaction to this, and this is what I revert to when getting philosophical will not change anyone's mind. In brief: "I will kill and die (literally) to secure your right to burn whatever flag you want, but if you do it in my presence I will kick your ass."

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The new me: A self-help post

My new upcoming soon-to-fail self-help project is the following:

First, I am going to become a fashionista.

Second, I am going to try to make the adjectives "snarky", "tolerant", and "fabulous" describe my personality.

Any advice?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Michael Jackson Method of Halachic Discourse

A few weeks ago, I had a post about the new eruv in Flatbush. I was curious to see where it would go. Well, today I found out.

Apparently there was a great response by the right-wing religious establishment.

Let me recap what happened. There is a new eruv in Flatbush. Because of an old ruling by Moses Feinstein (who people took quite seriously) there could be no kosher eruv in Flatbush. So now, someone took it upon themselves to produce a booklet explaining why the ruling was mistaken, why Feinstein's logic would be different given the actual facts (which Feinstein apparently got wrong), and why we should accept the new eruv.

Naturally this was going to be controversial. The eruv was controversial in Boro Park, and other parts of New York, but this was really controversial because of the weight that Feinstein carries.

The Right wing leaders felt the need to respond. And respond they did. They put out a three page glossy set of pictures of themselves. I am not making this up. They had a full spread of pictures of 10 people all who looked like a cross between Khomeini and bin Laden with little captions beneath their pictures saying things like "don't descrate the sabbath" and other dumb stuff.

I felt embarassed for my people. Apparenlty they felt that the way to respond to a halachic challenge is to give out pictures of themselves. Mine were not autographed. What kind of bullshit is this? Suddenly Orthodox Jews are too stupid to have a debate about a halacha?

Throughout Jewish history, when there was a halachic or hashkafic issue, each side would put forth their best man and each would write a book. They would battle it out in a real forum where scholars and laypeople would judge a case on its merits. Now the establishment sends out pictures?!?

This is insulting. This is how celebreties win favor, they just put their pictures out there, get on TV and sign some autographs. This is what Orthodox Judaism just became. This is sad and pathetic - proof by abundance of facial hair.

I do not remember who the 10 people on the list were. I remember that Dovid Feinstein, the son of Moses Feinstein was one of them. I've met him one many many years ago, and I know many people who know him fairly well. His father would cry if he knew what his son is making of Orthodox Jews. He is making them a nation of sheep, a nation of uncaring unthinking unreflective people who go for the glossy pictures of bearded people over people who are genuinely concerned for halacha.

This is what das torah is now. Das torah is a big "trust us". Well, I don't. I trust a good psak. I trust a good reason, not a glossy picture.

What crap!

Treif meals

Here is a question that came up over the all nighter I pulled with "A-" on the first night of Shavout: What is the most treif meal one can eat? Naturally it would have meat and dairy (preferrably goat meat and the milk of its mother) some blood product, nevilah, something pig so you get the paradigm case of treif and something rodent. I however have no imagination for this.
Added 5/16/05: Don't forget eiver min hachai.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Gitmo debates

Watching the talk shows, reading the reports, one gets the impression that there is a lot of confusion about what is going on at Guantanamo Bay prison, and whether there is something wrong, or there are lessons to be learned, etc.

I think that the first step that needs to be taken is the questions must be sorted out properly. There are some fairly dumb people out there who think there is just one question and that one answer will suffice. There are even more people who confuse “sorting out the issues” with confusing them. After all, they reason, people who talk too much must be trying to cover things up. So what are the questions?

First, what is actually going on there? Is it a “gulag, as Amnesty International” reports? Are we abusing holy books? Are we torturing prisoners?

Second, who are the people there? Are they legitimately terrorists? What sorts of information do we have? How do we know?

Third, is what is going on there in violation of international treaties?

Fourth, is what is going on there a violation of US law?

Fifth, can someone make a case that whatever is going on there is wrong?

Sixth, is whatever we are doing there a good or bad idea? Does it help us get information? Does it make people who otherwise would have approved of the US, now oppose it? Are the people there, people we need to keep off the streets of their respective countries.

By failing to sort out these questions we risk talking past each other and getting nothing done.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Plato and the Sorities Paradox

Looking over Plato's Phaedo, it appears to me that Socrates could not have taken the sorities paradox seriously.

Here is a quote from the Phaedo(100e-101b):
And that by Greatness only great things become great and greater greater, and by Smallness the less becomes less.


Then if a person remarks that A is taller by a head than B, and B less by a head than A, you would refuse to admit this, and would stoutly contend that what you mean is only that the greater is greater by, and by reason of, greatness, and the less is less only by, or by reason of, smallness; and thus you would avoid the danger of saying that the greater is greater and the less by the measure of the head, which is the same in both, and would also avoid the monstrous absurdity of supposing that the greater man is greater by reason of the head, which is small. Would you not be afraid of that?

So if I am reading this right, Plato's theory of the Forms suggests that things that have a certain property, let us say being large, are large because they participate in the form of Largeness. They are not large because they have some extra size.

Plato here of course does not have to worry about the question of "larger than what?" because for him there is some absolute standard which is exemplified by participating in the form.

Though I still find it odd that there are Forms of adjectives or adverbs, even if there can be forms of nouns. I can imagine the perfect woman, or perfect apple - but the perfect running, or the perfect redness? I am not sure.

But regardless. If there are Forms, and objects are what they as because they participate in them then could Socrates have bought in to the Sorities paradox? Could he have bought in to the paradox of the heap?

The paradox states that a grain of sand is just that - a grain. A pile of sand is a pile. For any amount of grains of sand, if it is not a pile, then adding just one grain will not make it one. Yet, there is an easy procedure for getting from grains to piles, and that is by continuously adding grains - hence the paradox.

More colloquially, there is no straw that breaks camels' backs. If a certain amount of straws will not break a camel's back, then it should be able to hold one more too. Yet, if we keep adding straws, the camel's back will be broken.

More formally there is a base case, namely that one grain is not a heap. And there is an induction premise: for any n such that n grains is not a heap, n+1 grains will not be a heap either. But enough instantiations of this rule will create a heap.

There are various solutions to this problem, and it seems that Plato too had a solution. Plato's solution is to deny that the induction premise works at all. Plato claims that you cannot get something that was big by simply adding small things. For Plato, it was patently absurd to try to reach something that participated in the form of the Large, by repeated instantiations of something that participated in the Form of the Small. For Plato, some things participated in the Large, and others in the Small, and that determined what something was.

It is unclear how many forms there are. (That is an interesting question!) But is there a form of the in-between? And Plato would have to account for these aggregation effects. After all, things do get bigger without having to go through the forms. They get bigger by addition. But Plato would claim is that what makes them bigger is their participation in the forms, and not the aggregation effect.

In more modern terms we might have to say that Plato would have to have taken an epistemological stand toward the origin of the problem. He would have to say that there is are grains and there are heaps, and there is a sharp boundary, only we don't know where it is.

This is a version of Timothy Williamson's approach. His claim, if memory serves, is that we get a contradiction out of denying bivalence, so everything is clearly in a category but we may be ignorant of it. Plato too, I would assume had no problem assuming human ignorance of the forms. Overcoming this ignorance is of course the goal of philosophy.

This of course sounds obvious, but I do not recall seeing the Phaedo mentioned in connection with the paradox in such an obvious way.

(This sounds like an undergraduate paper. Damn!)

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Grading time

Everyone who has taught in University is probably aware of the phenomena of students demanding higher grades as soon as the semester is over. This is one of the parts of the job I hate most. Here are a few of my stories from this semester:

Minutes after submitting my grades I get an irate email from a student who got an A-. His midterm grade was an A, his first paper was an A-, and he had no idea what he got on the final (which was an A-). But for him, that adds up to an A, and he was wondering why he didn't get one. (His spotty attendance didn't help.)

A second student got a B on an oral presentation. It was a generous grade. She sucked. But complained to me, and insisted that she deserved at least an A-. I had to go to the bathroom when she caught me, so I caved, and was determined to take it back from her on her final paper. I did.

I generously gave a student a D because most of his final paper had been plagiarized, though he was otherwise a pretty good student. His average counting the F on the final paper was barely passing. After the first angry and confused email, I sent him to my department chair, so I would just not have to bother.

An enthusiastic but not very good student got solid Bs on everything he handed in. When he received a B as a final grade, he emailed and asked what he got on his final paper. I emailed back that he got a B. The student was incredulous. He was sure that he would nonetheless end up with an A as his final grade. He did not explain why.

I had three students so far send me emails inquiring why they were awarded Incomplete grades. All of them should have known that they did not submit any final paper which I had been going on about for the last third of the semester.

Another student handed in two papers which he had cut from the internet and pasted on to a piece of paper and submitted to me. He did not understand his grade of Z, which is what my college awards for cases of academic dishonesty. I sent him to the provost and the dean of students for an explanation. I have not heard back since.
Added 5/16/05:I think this last student put something very nasty up about me on Oh well.

Marijuana and the 10th Amendment

I am no legal scholar, far from it actually, but it really seems to me now that the Supreme Court has been using the Interstate Commerce Clause for 50 years to trample the 10th Amendment.

The Supreme Court's reasoning seems to be as follows: Given the way the US is, practically anything done anywhere in the US can potentially have repercussions for some other state. Given that we are allowed to regulate things that will involve more than one state, we can pretty much regulate anything.

And so they have. But the 10th Amendment's point is: that the only thing the federal government has jurisdiction over are those things specified in the constitution. This clause was very clearly intended from stopping the federal government from the type of reasoning of the last paragraph.

The 10th Amendment really says that any kind of reasoning that concludes that anything is fair game for the federal government is simply illegitimate reasoning from the perspective of the constitution.

Yet the Supreme Court has been getting away with this kind of stuff for at least 50 years.

Oh, PS - I take back some of the not nice things I have said about Clarence Thomas. His dissenting brief on the medical marijuana ruling was exactly right.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

David Sedaris

I just came from Seeing David Sedaris at Coliseum Books. He read two pieces, one fable, which I didn't really follow, and a second piece about a cab ride and animal porn. It was amusing. I feel so unliterary around events like these. I never seem to get what is going on. It was nice though. "Y" scored these tickets and Sedaris signed my copy of his book and wrote some odd phrase, like "To Karl, I'm so happy you're alive." I had a good time. I could think of much worse things to do with my time.

Deep Throat - I guess you had to be there

To be frank, I am much more interested in the Linda Lovelace Deep Throat, then the Mark Felt Deep Throat. Am I the only one? Watergate happened before I was born. To me, it looks like it was all part of the liberal hysteria of the 60's and 70's that we look back on and say, "Yeah, well, of course politics is corrupt. It always has been, always will."

Imagine finding out some new detail about Monica Lewinsky in 20 years. It is almost embarassing how overhyped this country was. Liberals hated Nixon before Watergate, and hated him after. It is not like anyone changed their minds after it was discovered that someone stole someone else's files. Now people have fallen to the old party lines in defending and castigating him.

Someone who stays anonomous and risks little is no hero. But he did something that resembled getting the truth out, however improper it was for someone in his position. So he was not really a bad person. He did bring down the Nixon White House, and there is no real honor there. Nixon was a pretty good president from where I stand. He signed Title IX giving women equal rights, he got us out of Vietnam, he prevented the Escalation of the Yom Kipur War, and a few other useful things. This is way more than can be said for the Democrat before him who got us in to Vietnam, had a lousy civil rights record, and almost got us in to nuclear wars.

My undergraduate college professors seemed to have a firm sense of hyperbole. I never got the hatred of Nixon till this past election - then it all made sense: it was completely hysterically irrational. They just need to hate Republicans. Sad sad people actually.