Thursday, December 28, 2006

Conference in our nation's capitol

I'm now in boring professional conference in Washington DC. Those of you who have been here must be struck by the difference of culture that exists inside the beltway and the culture of other big cities. I wonder what it is? Anyone know what percentage of Washington DCers were born and raised here, and how many are transplants? I wonder if that makes a difference.

Meanwhile, I will just enjoy my professional conference and listen to talks that can possibly interest a handful of people on the planet, me being one of them.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Now its twice

This is now the second time I've been declared the person of the year by Time magazine. The first was in 2003, as you may recall. I really wish they'd give someone else a chance.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

It didn't happen

Personally I am skeptical that there really was a holocaust denial conference in Iran this week.

Well maybe there were a few people in "Iran" who got together to talk about not liking Jews. And everyone knows that Iranians exaggerate their numbers just to advance their anti-Zionist agendas. And everyone also knows that Iran simply doesn't have halls big enough to hold all the holocaust deniers.

Borat, who was allegedly at the conference is widely believed to be fictional. It is also unclear if Iran actually exists. I understand there is a conference pending about that. Americans and Israelis, and miscellaneous "Jewish" conspiritors who were allegedly at this perported conference have no legal way of actually getting to Iran.

So one wonders what the Persian agenda is here. Why pretend to hold a conference about a subject so unpopular in the west? Moreover, why pretend to hold a conference when it is probably just as east to just actually hold one. Faking conferences seems like more trouble than it is worth.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Review of Lewis' What Went Wrong

As usual, Bernard Lewis produces a great piece of writing. What went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response is a well-told tale of the relevant bits of Islamic history leading up to their poor position in the world today.

Islam, once a real force in culture and science and even justice, has been reduced to an almost negligible space in the intellectual, financial, economic, moral, and scientific outlook of the planet. Their ownership of fossil fuels being their only positive contribution to the rest of the planet. After the 15th century Islam stopped

The book talks about many things that hindered Islam's inability to modernize. The ones that stick out in my mind are Islam's inability to separate between church and state - a big impediment to modernization. Islam's lack of interest in anything that was not religious seems like a problem too. Real efforts to modernize seemed to have been spurned on by their need to win wars, something they have not been doing lately. (From being controlled by the secular Ottomans to the British and French, to the loss against Israel. . .)

My only gripe about the book is that I wish it was clearer about what went wrong. It does a good job at looking at the history, and the title made a promise that it did not deliver on, namely what went wrong. The conclusion chapter made some strides in this direction, but the reader is left to put the pieces together for himself.

Otherwise a pretty good read.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Memo to the Simon Wiesenthal Center

There are no facts you can tell the leaders of Iran that they can't google themselves, if they just visited a neighboring country that had unrestricted Internet access. When they hold an event questioning the holocaust the correct response is not to hold an event to "counter it". To do so is to miss the point. When they hold an event such as this they are trying to piss you off. It is not about researching the most well documented event in human history, it is about hating you.

Here are two responses that are better than getting upset.

1. Ask world Jewery to set aside one minute of today yawning. As in - who cares what kind of bigotry they exhibit in Iran. You have to be an upper-East Side New York liberal Bush hater to still find it surprising that Iran hates Jews. When Bush put Iran in the axis of evil, it is because the Irani leadership really are bastards, not because Bush just needed a third country to not like.

2. Piss Iran off yourself. Hold a conference - "Iran, is it really there?" or "Islam - the billion most gullible people on Earth" or if you were feeling charitable "Crisis in the Muslim world: The obvious reason why they have produced no historians of note - ever"

(Be prepared for a few days of rioting)

Even Palestinians will be banned if they are not toeing the party line here. As an old activist once said, if someone calls Jews dogs, would you hold a conference that provided unequivocal proof that dogs have tails, and Jews don't, and dogs bark, and Jews speak a human language, dogs walk on four legs and Jews on two. . .? If someone calls a Jew a dog, they are not making a biological point. If someone challenges the historicity of the holocaust, they are not making a historical point.

The Weisenthal center is dignifying this sort of hatred with a response because they need to show that (1) Iran is not evil in any way that can't be corrected with a simple conference, that this is about ignorance, not hate, and (2) so that the Weisentahl center can claim to actually be doing something about this.

But despite what "education theorists" have been saying for decades, you can't just teach someone something and expect them to be the way you want. Virtues such as those it would take to make Iran our friends have to be inculcated over a long time with the proper upbringing for a whole generation of leaders. This will not start with a conference. A conference shows that you take them seriously - which you shouldn't.

The Weisenthal Center justifies its budget on the grounds that it does something about anti-semitism. Well, perhaps here the best thing to do is nothing. Somethings are just not meant to be taken too seriously. The best way to respond, is to find a disincentive for Iran to do this. It has to be made to be not worth it for Iran, or Iranians. But this is too hard, so the Center is just doing the next best thing, which is actually not a good thing at all.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Review of Charles Townshend: Terrorism

Terrorism is a notoriously unclear subject. It is full of linguistic, moral, social, and legal ambiguities. One wants an introduction that sorts it all about and makes things a little clearer. Charles Townshend's Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction does not do that. These very short introductions are hit or miss, and this one is definitely a miss.

The book basically starts out with some definitional questions and attempts to disambiguate terrorism from other things. moves on to some history, and then to revolutionary terrorism, national terrorism, and religious terrorism. Finally the book has a little to say about counterterrorism and democracy.

This is a superficial book. When reading this, one gets the impression that the author is a specialist is some related field, but clearly not this one. There is detail without background in many cases, and and judgements without context in others. The author makes no attempt to not be snide or hide sympathies for some group or other. The writing at times is not careful, and frankly, I thought the pictures were poorly chosen.

I would go in to detail, but that would make me go back and look at the book to remember what I didn't like about it. This is an exercise I find too painful to be worth it.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Worrying story, and photo

There are a number of things that worry me about this article. It is about the recent suicide bombing attempt by a 64 year-old grandmother.

First, its content. When a society finds it normal and acceptable for a woman with 40 grandchildren to blow herself up in a suicide attack (which failed to kill anyone but herself) you know that you are not dealing with a society that can be spoken of in the same moral terms as my own. It is almost laughable to hear the phrase "doing such and such to the Palestinians is wrong". Bad implies the kind of moral judgement that is made about a society similar to our own with similar values such that there is some way to say that what would be bad to do to someone in our society is wrong to do to someone in theirs. This can only be true if there is something about the respective communities that is shared. It is hard to imagine what a community that thinks this is normal has in common with those of us who make western-style moral judgements.

What kind of society can cheer on an old lady who blows herself up?

Secondly, it is now clear that grandmothers are no longer innocent by-standers by default. It used to be assumed that at the very least old ladies were not to be treated as suspicious because who would send an old lady out with a suicide vest? But now we see another Western assumption fade to oblivion. Israel now has to treat even old ladies as suspects.

I suspect that it will be a long time before Israel forgives the Palestinians for making them mistreat old women. Forcing Israeli soldiers to now look at old granmothers as terrorists is inhumane. Hamas is now one step closer to making Israelis have to fight like Hamas does - with no regard for anything, with no modicum of respect for humans, or human dignity. When all is said and done, Israel will have to become a crueller people, and it is incidents like this that are to blame.

Finally, and this is pretty worrying, the picture clearly shows the grandmother/terrorist holding an M-16 that says "IDF" on it in Hebrew (or at least the DF part is visible). This means that the weapon is from the Israeli military. It should be very worrying that Hamas has gotten hold of weapons from the Israeli Army.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The assassination of Pierre Gemayel

Including Rafik Hariri, there have been five successful political assassinations in Lebanon in the past year and a half. (Hariri, Kassir, Hawi, Tueni, Gemayel) Then there is the defense minister who survived one car bombing, and a reporter who lost an arm and a leg (literally) in another. Undoubtedly Syria is in one way or another responsible for all of these, just like it was most likely responsible for the assassination of Bachir Gemayel (Pierre's uncle) about 25 years ago.

Syria just resumed ties with Iraq and is reconsolidating its power base in Lebanon after Hizbollah's popular war with Israel. It is now killing off domestic opposition. There are also numerous reports suggesting that Lebanon is again on the verge of a civil war, and of course this is in Syria's best interest. Syria has been fostering the myth that Lebanon would inevitably descend in to civil war without Syrian presence on Lebanese soil. Of course after the Cedar Revolution threatened to show how false that really was, Syria is trying to make it true.

It is important to keep in mind that the last time a Gemayel was assassinated (again, most likely by Syria via Hobeika) it led directly to the Sabra and Shatilla Massacres. (Deja vu?) Syria is undoubtedly trying to recreate that tension in Lebanon. Syria is trying to kill off enough Maronite leaders to provoke them to massacre another few hundred Muslims. If that happens Syria wins two victories. First there is anti-Maronite sympathy, meaning people will be more likely to hate the Lebanese Christians and continue to support the Shites. Secondly, Syria will have an excuse and support to march right back in to Lebanon to "help stabilize the region".

Given the situation in Lebanon, it is unreasonable to expect the Maronites to stay quiet for long. We can expect something really bad to happen to Muslims by Maronites pretty soon. On the other hand that is exactly what Syria wants, and it will ultimately make things worse. The only way to proceed is to go to the heart of the problem and get at the Syrians.

But that is getting harder with Syria being helped by Iran, which seems willing to fight Israel to the last Syrian, Lebanese, and perhaps Iranian. While I don't see a full scale civil war in Lebanon happening anytime soon, I do predict some small scale violence.

This is real bad my friends.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Review of David Knight: Ideas in Chemistry

Knight’s book Ideas in Chemistry: A History of the Science is an interesting survey of the history of Chemistry. It is nice, informal, and very readable. The chapters are broken down in such a way that makes it look like the history of chemistry is a series of new developments, both in terms of chemistry’s discoveries, and also in terms of its methodological evolution. There is a discussion for example of chemistry as a teachable science, discussing the apprentice system, and another chapter on chemistry as a reduced science, addressing chemistry playing second-fiddle to physics. . .

This book does have some shortcomings. Specifically, one does not come away with a feel for the history of chemistry, but rather one leaves with just a taste for it. The book would be a great supplement to a class where there was a fuller story presented, and more coherence to the whole history.

But Knight's book is user friendly, and it is a good outline of the general history of the field from Alchemy to the present. I would recommend it as a quick overview, not a text.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Tripoli Six

The Tripoli Six have gotten quite a bit of news coverage lately. Basically there are five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused by Libya of infecting some 400 children with HIV. There is a good chance that if international pressure is not successful, they will end up with the death penalty.

The major evidence for this is that Ghaddafi claims there is no HIV in Libya, so it must have come from outside. These doctors are outsiders, so it must be them. The CIA and the Mossad have been blamed, and Libya has offered to trade their release for the release of a terrorist and $6 Billion.

The charge is obviously bogus, and most likely, the hospital just reuses syringes and is too cheap to test blood for AIDS, so it gets spread around. They have to blame someone so they blame a foreigner. Blaming a Palestinian is also too easy because Palestine is almost Israel.

Groups all around the world are calling for their release, bla bla bla. Zillions of scientists have offered scientific proof that it is highly unlikely that they actually did it. . . As if this matters. It is funny that they go through the motions of actually proving the obvious. The fact that the Libyans are using them as scapegoats is far more obvious than any long-winded bit of scientific evidence of their innocence that a team of doctors can conjure up.

But there is something missing from all these news stories about this affair. First, how did these medical personnel get there? Who are they? And what the hell are they doing in Libya?

One must assume that there are risks that you are taking when you go to work for Ghadaffi. There is no expectation that you will be treated fairly. There is no expectation that you have any type of redress should something go wrong, and there is no expectation that you will be treated fairly.

When I first saw this I assumed that one of the following was going on: (1) Libya needed medical staff, so they advertised, and six people were dumb enough to say to them selves "with medical staff in high demand all over the world, why not work in Libya?" Or (2) they said to themselves "Those poor Libyans. The world hates them for no reason. They spend their money on financing terrorism, so they have no money to train doctors, so I better help them." Or (3) "Screw politics. Their people still need help, they are paying. I'll go to Libya and work."

Look, I have no idea why these people actually went to Libya to work, and I really feel bad for any victims of Ghadaffi. But isn't their reasons for going relevant to how much I should be willing to help? If they went because it was the only place the six of them could find work, then I am feeling very bad. If, and I have no idea whether this is true, they went because they really hate America and the effects of the former American boycott of Libya, and want to do whatever they can to undermine the impact of American sanctions on Libya, then why should I try hard to help them. (Who can't imagine a Palestinian doctor thinking that getting paid well to help Libyans is a great way for him to hate Israel.)

So I really don't know their story. But I would like to. I think it is a very morally relevant factor in my willingness to help. Should I feel bad for them as people, or as victims of Ghadaffi? Who goes to work in Libya? Did they go there because they had little choice or because they really believed that Ghadaffi was a good guy and wanted to help? If they initially put their trust in the good will of the Libyan government, it seems like it is not my job to rectify their bad and possibly malicious judgement.

By the way, here is another interesting thing I noticed: The prestigious journal Nature published an Open Letter to Gaddafi calling for a fair trial. The list of signatories is on Nature's website. They are all Nobel Prize winners in Science. But neither of the two Muslim Noble Prize winners (Salam or Zewail) are listed among the signatories. With 113 Science Nobel prize winners, that is a conspicuous absence.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Taking bets

I'm taking bets on how many hours it will be before the Nigerian plane crash is blamed on the Mossad by a major newspaper or government.

I'm betting sometime Monday Morning.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Review of Weston's A Practical Companion to Ethics

You know a book is just going to suck when there is a deliberate preachy lie on page 1. Anthony Weston 's A Practical Companion to Ethics does just that.
To be prejudiced is to have strong negative feelings about someone who is of a different ethnicity or gender or age or social class (or. . . ) from yourself.
This is not what it is to be prejudiced. And it is not like anyone who has ever thought about anything does not know this. You would think that this sentence would be qualified somewhere in the text. But it isn't. To give a better definition we would want to say that to be prejudiced is to have strong negative feelings about someone of a different type than yourself merely because they are of a different type After all, I know many young blacks who harbor strong negative feelings against George Bush, Weston's definition makes them prejudiced. I don't like Hitler much. I guess that I am prejudiced. We are after all of differeing races.

The book goes downhill from there. First sentence of page two insists that our instincts tell us to be prejudiced. It must be his instincts, as they are certainly not mine. I must have been raised by non-judgemental hippies. Second sentence on page two says that ethics says not to be prejudiced. This again is wrong. Ethics says nothing. Ethics is something you do, it is not a set of dogmas. Ethics is an activity that tells you how to think about right and wrong, not what is right and wrong.

The rest of the book is just full of those type of stupid things.

Much of the book is taken up with trite suggestions like listen to other people. See what they are saying. Maybe you'll learn something. Religion does not say that homosexuality is wrong, because people can reinterpret the Bible. Mandela, Tutu, Ghandi, and Socrates are wise. Listen to them. Say "hello" to people on the street. Volunteer in a homeless shelter to get "perspective" on homelessness. If people disagree about whether euthenasia is morally legitimate, try to think outside the box. (Here's an out-of-the-box suggestion, flip a coin.) Moral exploration does not need ethics. This is obviously true because Alice Walker told a story about a horse.

The junk is piled high and deep. How Oxford let this get published is way beyond me. Any ethicist that uses this is her classroom as a guide to ethics is obviously misleading their students, and most likely incompetent.

(Oh, and since I'm on the lookout for these things, p 68 has a reference to "restorative" justice". I'm adding that to the list of justices.)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Review of Stephen Nathanson's Should We consent to be Governed

Lately I have come to think of political philosophy as the study of four questions. (I think I read this in a paper by Dudley Knowles.) (1) Are governments legitimate?; (2) What is the best form of government?; (3) Are governments constrained by the rights of their citizens?; and (4) what is the proper distribution of resources. Stephen Nathanson's book is a short introduction to political philosophy, though it really only gives us a discussion of question (1) only touching on the others. This is not a criticism, but it does show that the question that Nathanson discusses is really only one of the big questions.

Though it is one of the big questions, it is also the least important. After all, you have to be a philosopher to think that the question of the legitimacy of government is really up for grabs. It is a really interesting theoretical question, or rather the reasons are really interesting theoretical answers, but the question?. . .c'mon. In high school we were all anarchists. We hated the government, the man, and authority. But then we grew up.

Nathanson's discussion is what you have when you grow up and you try to explain to your former high school self why you sold out. We all sold out. I hope there aren't many people who were thinkers in high school, and still think now what they thought then. Nathanson's discussion however is geared to the high-schooler. Nathanson clearly does have the ability to be subtle as a philosopher, though it is not exhibited here. (Though he has one argument in the final chapter that kept me tossing and turning for hours last night, and I cannot think of a good satisfying refutation.)

Nathanson Claims that there are 4 positions we can take on whether we should be governed. (1) No. (2) Accept your government. (3) Assume your government is an instrument of repression. and (4) be a critical thinker about your government, but accept the fact that governments are legitimate.

Naturally Nathanson takes the safe route and argues for (4) and against the others. The arguments are mostly simple and straight forward. Use the standard anarchist arguments for (1) and refute them. Take Plato's Crito as an argument for (2) and refute it. Take the Leninist/Thyrsamachus argument for (3) and show how misguided it is. And finally, show how Martin Luther King had a view of (4) and how true and widely acceptable it is. So there were no surprises.

Besides for its simplicity and limited scope, I shan't critique the book. I would actually recommend it to someone if they were a precocious high-schooler and wanted to know what political philosophers talk about, and what the opening moves in a discussion of one of the major questions in political philosophy are.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Where can you go for good Science?

Give or take a little scepticism, I tend to think that humans have had a negative effect on Earth's atmosphere. I believe this not because I have examined any evidence. I have not. I am not qualified to examine the evidence. I would not know how. I hear the evidence presented by real climatologists, and I take it pretty seriously. I try my best to grasp the problems and the evidence. When I have hit my limit of understanding, I trust the scientific consensus. What more can I do? I only have so much time to figure out the issues, and frankly I don't care about them enough to put in the real work that it takes to grasp it.

This week's Nature has an article about some radical environmentalists who have taken to destroying research laboratories. It is annoying to learn that the people most concerned with the environment seem to distrust science. After all, everything they know about how bad the Earth is, is through scientific research.

But more annoyingly, I still have no idea how much Al Gore trusts science. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth is based on a lot of speculation, and contnetious scientific models. That is not to say that it is all wrong, but it is to say that you do not get any real picture from watching the movie. And Nature will certainly not have a good discussion of that. It is as if just dismissing the radical fringe, makes the normal environmentalists right, after all, Al Gore is not blowing up laboratories. He invented laboratories. But is the center presenting us with real science?

What is even worse than the enviornmental debate is the IQ debate.
A recent commentator made the following observation that will ring true to anyone who has ever tried to teach a statistical concept to a class:
Imagine you are addressing a room full of people. We can let them be quite well-educated people, so long as they are not trained statisticians. A room full of students from some university Humanities department will do nicely. Now say the following thing to the room: “Men are, on average, taller than women.” I can almost guarantee—it is nearly a dead certainty—that someone in the room will stand up and say something like: “What about Sally? She’s taller than any of us. Taller than you, for sure—Ha ha ha ha!” The room will then consider your thesis to have been decisively exploded. Men taller than women? Nonsense! Look at Sally!
Yet this es exactly the kind of science done by CNN in a recent segment on the male/female IQ discussion. (I always expected more of Sanjay Gupta. I really trusted him!) Yet the scientific research explored by the scientists being mocked in the segment is completely ignored.

IQ is another question I am pretty agnostic about. I really don't know if there are group differences in IQ, and I am pretty convinced that humans are still a really long way off from actually giving a good answer to almost any social science question. They are hard, and people who do real science will be the first to admit that.

Or will they?

I am really getting to the point where I think that it is unfair for anyone to look at a scientific or political question and appeal to experts. Experts, we know, are no less ideologically driven than anyone else. Experts do what everone else does, they brandish their opinions, but with more arrogance.

Moreover, I am not the first to realize this. The danger in my attitude is that it breeds a strong distrust for science. A strong distrust for science means that society is willing to fund science less, and people will be less likely to learn it.

Who can blame creationists for saying that biologists are just agenda-driven liberal atheists? They are. (I'll bet there is a biologist out there screaming "but look at Sally, she is a conservative Christian biologist".) Creationists don't trust science because scientists have done little to earn anyone's trust. Of course "creation scientists" or whatever they are calling themselves these days (ID proponents?) are jus as dishonest.

So where does one go for good science?

Friday, October 06, 2006


Ideas by Jewish organizations for building a positive Jewish identity among 20-somethings generally range from the assinine to the moronic. Ocassionally they are thinly veiled ways to make you join some religious group or other. Today I was reading about one that prima facie does not seem to suck. It is this. Of course those that are neither too wannabe, to kitchy, to poserlike, too religious, generally tend to be part of these hippy do-godder organizations that think that four out of five books of the bible involve saving whales, the the fifth one was where Hilary Clinton got the idea for universal healthcare. One day I ought to look at all of these more carefully. There has got to be one somewhere that normal people could live with.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Friday, September 15, 2006

Review of Watson's The Double Helix

By now everyone really knows the story of the discovery of DNA, and this book is not really all that interesting. It is Watson's retelling of the story of how he and Crick uncovered the molecular structure of the double helix, and what it was like to realize that A's G's C's and T's were paired the way they are.

There is a bit of excitement conveyed in the thrill of the discovery, but I can't help but not be that excited. When one reads how sociologists of science see this this as one of the most important books of their discipline, one cannot but loose respect for those sociologists of science.

This book is clearly written for science-phobes, and makes no attempt whatsoever to convey actual scientific information. Nor do you get a feel for the scientific methodology.

Good scientists often write popular books to explain their discoveries to the public. This is not one of them. This explains the lab gossip that was going on while the real sicence was being done.

Neither is the book sexy, as it is often hyped. Sure, if you find it odd or risque that a science student in his mid-20's thinks about girls a lot, then this will be an odd and risque book. But even by the standards of its time, it was pretty demure. Feynman really knew how to embellish an autobiography. Watson. . . not so much.

Unless you are really bord, you can skip this book, and your life will be no less empty.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Review of A. O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being

Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being is a classic work, actually the one that founded the discipline we now call the "history of ideas". It is kind of like the history of philosophy, but it is more about tracing an idea through history than critically evaluating an argument, even via its historical chain.

There are two ideas that Lovejoy finds in about 2000 years of history. The first is the Principle of Plentitude. That principle is one that states that everything that is not a patent irrational contradiction actually exists - was created in the world. The second idea is the Principle of Continuity - the thesis that nature makes no leaps. That is for every set of things where there can be an intermediate thing between two objects, the intermediate thing exists too. Between the two of these we can account for, for example, why there are so many species, and why there are so many similarities among and between species.

This idea manifests itself over and over and over in history from its origins in Plato and Aristotle to the romantics in the 18th century.

Thogh the idea is important and in and of itself interesting, the book is often tedious. It is not a quick or easy or fascinating read. If you are really interested in the history of ideas, and have some real experience with primary texts in philosophy, you should get to know this. I am sure there is more up-to-date literature on this, and I am sure that Lovejoy has been criticized a lot since this came out in 1936, but the book remains a valuable part (or starting point) for the discussion of many of the ideas that he brings down.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Review of Shmuel Feiner's The Jewish Enlightenment

Shmuel Feiner's The Jewish Enlightenment is a very good overview of the haskallah movement. It is the only good historical survey that coveres the whole period from about 1780-1800. It covers all the major players, literature, and crises in the movement.

The historiography of the Jewish Enlightenment usually focuses on Moses Mendelssohn and his circle of students. Feiner's discussion is much more nuanced, and comprehensive. The book makes a few things clear: The haskallah seems to have been motivated by a few things including equal rights for Jews, a feeling of intellectual inferiority by Jews, the need for scientific knowledge and culture, and a need to break Jews away from the authority of the rabbinical elite. The rabbinical elite were suspect for many things, but their anti-enlightenment attitude was especially problematic. Their stance on the early burial issue seems to have been particularly annoying to the maskillim.

The book argues a few very interesting pionts: Mendelssohn didn't really have students. He had a circle of people who revolved around him, went to his home and took part in discussion with him and his salon. Also, there is no clear way to deliniate when the enlightenment was actually taking place. Feiner uses the publication of Ha'me'asef, their main literary journal as to dilineate the endpoints of the haskallah.

The book tells the story of all the important battles the haskallh fought, including the ones with Wessely, the ones over the schools, the fight over the Bi'ur, the Posner affair, Mendelssohn's battle with the Priest, the Kohn problems. . . . Part III of the book tries to show what the haskallah movement was and how they organized, and what their institutional structures were. Part IV then chronicles their ultimate demise. Mendlessohn dies, their reaison d'etra is less clear. Their are battling both the "ignorant rabbis" and also the secularized Jews. The movement ultimately looses momentum and cannot attract interest.

The book is a good read and I learned quite a bit about the history of the haskallah.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Blogging from Belfast

Belfast is a funny place. I am not sure how, but it is definitely different. I do not yet comprehend anything verbal, nor do the natives seem to comprehend me. (Must be that thick Brooklyn accent of mine). They also drive on the wrong side of the street, and I am constantly looking the wrong way when crossing. I hope I don't get hit. It is pretty frightening. The people do not seem to be the friendliest, except when they are going to, in, or coming from a pub, which is like. . . always. It is a plesant little place, though I am stuck at an academic conference where I get to sit through lots of talks about things I am not sure I comprehend. I got served a breakfast here, where I could not identify the spherical things in the buscits, and there were three differnt toast-like foods that came with my eggs. It was good though. I will describe more later on, when I actually do something here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What is a planet?

We all live on a planet, and most of us can name most of the other planets in our solar system. But what is a planet? This is in some sense a real philosophical question. That is, it is a question that does not depend on the scientific facts of the matter, but rather on a set of definitions, and a "conceptual analysis" of what planet is. Again, it is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one.

It is good to see philosophy of science making the news, and it is good to see that astronomers are managing this question just fine without philosophers of science, and have a tentative definition, albeit not without its own troubles. This should be fun to watch.

As far as I know, there is little literature on the philosophy of astronomy, and hopefully this will change things.

The debate hinges on the following points: There are thousands of things orbiting our sun. They are of various sizes. They are of varied distances from the sun, and they have different types of orbits. They have different shapes too. They are effected by different celestial forces.

It will be important to doa few things. First, the number of planets, whatever it amounts to, is kept small. It would be too much of a mess to call everything a planet, and it would seem to miss the point. Second, everything we end up calling a planet has to have certain features in common. If not, we cannot have a real definition. Third, the traditional planets should be retained as planets. We do not want Earth to suddenly not be a planet because of our new definition.

Some earlier proposed definitions had eight planets, and excluded Pluto. And here is where politics infringes on science. Standard earlier definitions exclude Pluto as a planet . But Pluto is the only planet (of the three that have been discovered) that were discoverred by an American. Americans have a lot of say in science. American scientists, and Americans in general will want to make sure that there is at least one planet that is forever associated with American science. So we can be assured that as long as the US is a superpower, Pluto will be a planet.

Again, ultimately this is a philosophical question, one that nothing serious hinges on it. Some debates in science are much more significant, and the outcomes do make a difference, Some debates in the philosophy of science are serious and make a difference in setting a scientific framework, like the debate between cladists and pheneticists in biology.

We will likely realize in the long run that no two celestial bodies have that much in common, and we will use extensional definitions of planets instead of intensional definitions. We will just call a planet anything that we have been calling planet, and anything that the term planet catches on for, instead of trying to come up with a clear definition of what a planet is. If philosophy of sience has taught us anything, it is that a definition that includes all the cases we want, and excludes all the cases we don't want is never forthcoming. Nature is just not that clean.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

BBC thinks it is "too white"

I'm taking bets: although the BBC suddenly feels it needs to have a more diverse reporting staff, one that understands the culture from which it is reporting, there will never be a Hebrew speaking Jew reporting from Israel for them.

Then again, it was once a British colony. Perhaps they feel that they are already all experts.

Added 8/13/06: What I don't get is why the left (the BBC in this case) sees everything only in terms of race. After all, you'd think that perhaps having someone who grew up rich report on inner city crime would miss the point just as much. Rich people are certainly asking the wrong questions there. Then there is language. Lord knows that someone who doesn't speak French reporting on France, in france, is really missing a lot.

And religion is also pretty relevant. Having interracted with many people who are not Jewish, I am certain that they generally don't get it. They miss the point, make the wrong assumptions, and are fairly insensitive to Jewish concerns. There is an assumption of this "Judeo-Christian" affinity, that is a misnomer. "Judeo-Christian" refers to the fact that two religions sort of share one book in their respective religious corpra. It does not mean that the religions have anything in common.

People (like the British) see Jews, and they see white people like themselves. The BBC then makes a rather racist assumption that racial affinity is good enough to allow for mutual cultural understanding. I'm white, the're white. Thus we are all the same. Bad argument. Real differences are not skin deep. They are linguistic, ideological, social, cultural, and poilitical. The BBC is making the wrong kind of assumption. It is racist. They are racist.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

New War

It is clear that whatever is going on in Lebanon is going to face the US in the coming years. The US Army, if it will successfully fight this has very few options. Here is one of them.

Everyone is talking about the new version of war, often called 4GW, that is currently being fought in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, and countless other places. For some reason William Gibson blames the neocons for not keeping up with the Kuhnian paradigm shift in war. (As if this problem cropped up in the last 6 years, and terrorism was not a problem with the PLO going back to 1966.) Some even blame the current conflict in Lebanon on Israel's frustration with this kind of new war.

The problem is that the people in charge have not fought in a modern war recently enough, and are so old that they think cell phones are still pretty nifty devices. Of course this is always the paradox of armies - you have to have been there a long time to be in charge, and age is a liability of being in charge. Young insurgents adapt much faster than old established armies. The US is trying, it is modifying tactics and training somewhat, but it is not thinking big enough.

For the new soldier and the new kinds of armies that are being fought NODs, sophisticated reliable recordless encrypted communications devices, vertical (anti-heierarchial) command and control systems, sophisticated psy-ops and propoganda dissemination, virtual civilian support anonymity, enemy cultural penetration, and a host of modern technology-driven weapons and tactics are at their disposal.

Weapons are also generally cheap and readily available. So are soliders. New fighters are often ideology driven so they are not overly concerned about their own lives, or they are bought and paid for so cheaply that their death is not much of a liability to their greater cause.

Moreover the ROE are . . . well, there really are not ROE. No safety, no protecting your own soldiers, no protecting, the enemy's human rights, or civilians. Someone changed the rules.

In the case of Hezbollah, they are using all of Lebanon as human shields and still getting Lebanese sympathy. (So is Hamas and whoever is being fought in Iraq. . .) The only rules of war now seem to be that if you are part of a nation-state you have to be careful about who you hit, even in wars where there is no distinction between fighter and civilian.

The inability of modern states to fight a modern war is a function of the assymetrical warfare that modern nations are forced to fight against terrorist networks and proxy armies. The 21st century has to see either the world change in to a place full of only nation states, which is not too likely, or warfare has to change. Modern armies have to learn to fight wars that will be much dirtier than the ones we currently fight.

There is little hope of learning to fight an army like Hezbollah's on Western terms. There is little hope of killing off Hezbollah, or armies like it, like those in Gaza, the Sudan, Iraq, or all over Latin America for that matter. What the US and Israel, and franky all nation-states, i.e., the countries that currently fight conventional wars by Geneva Convention rules, is to create proxy armies of their own. The function of proxy armies is to make the price of terrorism to whoever supports it.

There currently is no price for terror. Afghanistan paid a small price in exchange for sponsoring 9/11. But did they really? The taliban undoubtedly sees their loss of power as a minor setback, like when the communists temporary held on to Afghanistan. The communists are gone, and the Americans will be gone too. If you have the historical patience of a Muslim, these sort of things like loosing your country don't bother you.

But not all states are configured alike. Israel spends an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money making sure that right-wing radical groups in Israel don't attack Arab targets. This is a reasonable thing to do given that Israel wants to have a monopoly of force inside its borders. This keeps Israel a nation-state. The Taliban is more like a polis, in the sense that it does not need to hold on to a particular geography. It will thrive elsewhere until the time comes where they will regain power.

What Israel, the US and Western countries in general need to do is to get out of the nation-state mindset. They need to train a proxy army which has enough autonomy that it is disavowable, that allows for plausible deniability. Armies like this will be the ones operating completely outside the control of the state, and merely receive funding, intelligence and a blind-eye from the host-nation, if there even is any. The West needs an army that can go around causing untold damage, while their leaders get on TV swearing up and down that they are trying to curtail these groups and calling for endless UN meetings on how to curtail them.

The US occasionally does this I assume, but never to fight a war that we take too seriously - I suppose these tiny wars in these tiny countries like Nicaragua.

I can't remember the last time I heard that an Iraqi group, the Taliban, Hamas, or Hezbollah actually attacked a military target. The Taliban are targeting markets, the Sunni and Shi'i in Iraq are targeting mosques, Hamas is targeting whover it can, and Hezbollah are throwing rockets in to the middle of cities. Being in the infantry seem to be one of the safer jobs these days. It is much more dangerous to be a civilian. A group like this is not fought on traditional terms.

Someone has to take a new look at war. Movies often portray groups like this as rogue groups fighting tiny battles on behalf of countries. The US, Israel, Russia, and other Western powers need to have non-tiny armies for such jobs. These aremies need not to be rogues, but completely detached from the standard US command structure.

Modern armies have to target (1) Popular support (2) high-profile enemy command personnel (3) funding (4) anti-Western values.

Modern "soldiers" need need access to serious linguistic training, so they can fight properly in enemy territory. Make the DLAB as mandatory as the ASVAB. Identify potential linguistically adept soldiers.

Modern soldiers need training not in traditional combat, nor urban combat, but in terrorist tactics. There needs to be a new ethos that characterized non-traditional warfare. They need to know how to improvise and obtain and use weapons in foreign situations. They need to be able to have a large measure of autonomy to work without guidance from above. They need to be able to maintain radio silence for weeks and still inflict serious damage to the enemy. They need the protections of a nation state, but not as much accountability. It is difficult for an army such as the US's to trust such groups, as the training is all geared toward heierarchal command and control from the president on down to the privates in the field. We need somewhat autonomous armies that do not need integration in the US military structure.

We need to make the destruction of enemy assets a priority. Enemy assets include all collateral and secondary services that the enemy provides, be it drug ventures for funding, hospitals for public support, or schools for indoctrination.

Another priority hast to be the beginning of a sophisticated PR machine. Undoubtedly psy-ops and our Army journalists are trained to tell good stories and take good pictures, but apparently showing certain kinds of pictures tells better stories than other kinds of pictures. We need to start showing the right kinds of pictures and telling the right kinds of stories. Now we are not. We need someone who knows how to manufacture the right pictures at the right time for the right audience.

We need to outsource Basic Combat Training. Start shipping soldiers away from fort Jackson, and Fors Leonard Wood, and move them to a FOB in Bagdad. They need to train with the type of peopele they will be fighting, eating the food they will be eating, and seeing the same scenery that they will be fighting in. The US Army never has the home advantage in a fight. It is always on unfamiliar turf, with unfamiliar weather, street signs, and intel.

The US needs to also recruit foreign local forces in to its traditional and nontraditional army. The Army would benefit from the local know-how that now comes only at great expence, and it hardly trickles down well.

No one in Hezbollah will ever be charged with war crimes. There will always be plenty of Israelis brought up on charges. Americans too will be fodder for this. Western powers also need armies that are immune from war-crimes prosecution. They need armies that do not have an officer corps and an enlisted core. There needs to be a much looser planning structure with more flexibility and deniability.

Of course this is all illegal vis a vis international law. But international law breaks down when there are some groups which have immunity from them, and anyway there is no enforcement of law. International law is a gentleman's agreement, but with only about half the people on the planet being gentleman. Moreover, a government's job is not to protect international law, but to defend its citizens.

Until all this happens, Western powers are figthting a lopsided war that they will never win. The best they will ever be able to do is to keep winning battles but ultimately it will cost them the war.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Review of Garrison's Sexual Culture in Ancient Greece

Daniel H. Garrison's Sexual Culture in Ancient Greece is an interesting discussion of various aspects of Ancient Greek sexual culture.

Much of the discussion revolves around sexual religious practice, sexual reference and innendo in poular media, like the plays and the written culture and art.

The transition to a more sexualized culture, and the various forms it took is well discussed. There are good discussion of homosexuality and the role it played in ancient Greek culture, and in the role it played in the patriarchial nature of the society. He also has interesting things to say about pederasty and the roles it played in initiating young males in to the Greek political and social culture. There is also a good discussion of the transition around the time of the rise of Christianity of a move away from a sexual culture, to a desexualized culture in Greece.

There is also some good stuff on the nude as an art form, and the role women played in the erotic structure.

The book has plenty of interesting pictures of pottery, sculptures and other ancient kncknacks that are very germane. If this sort of stuff is up your alley, this was not a bad book.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Rolling Stone with its . . . in its mouth (not foot)

This story from last month's Rolling Stone could not have gotten Sgt Wilkerson right. When referring to a vehicle, one might say that it is "Locked, cocked, and ready to rock." Meaning that it is all ready to go, as in when one locks the magazine in the weapon, cocks the weapon (puts a round in the chamber) and is all ready to go shoot something.

Here is a quote from the article:

"Back in Baghdad, they'd thrown me in the back of the third of four Humvees in the convoy, a truck code-named Juliet.

"Juliet is like cock and ready to rock," said Sgt. Stephen Wilkerson as we roared out of the motor pool in Camp Victory to the exit of the base, headed on a six-day journey across northern Iraq, the first stage of my five-week stay in the war zone."

Rolling stone sent a reporter (Matt Taibbi) to Baghdad so unversed in basic military lingo, it is as if he never even watched a war movie. I bet he thinks that Jimi Hendrix asked us to excuse him while he kissed this guy.

Then again, maybe he did say it. But I'd bet against it.

Don't they have a fact checker? And so far, no one has caught this.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Syrian Missile Crisis

The prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons is generally taken to be half the problem. The second problem they would be taken to have is to develop a missile delivery system that can hit Israel. But do they really have to? Is it not entirely conceivable that they will simply place it in Iran or worse, with Hezbollah in South Lebanon and use a simple delivery system that really does not have to be long range? There is no way to prevent this, and it might even be difficult for Israel to know about such weapons even in Syria.

On Proportionality

There has been a lot of talk about Israel and "proportionality" lately. This has been mainly in the form of criticism against Israel. Israel, the charge goes, is using a disproportionate amount of force against Hezbollah.

This charge is mistaken, and was most likely thought up by someone who took a philosophy class about 30 years ago, and pretty much forgot everything he or she learned, and merely remembered a soundbyte. I say this because a standard doctrine of the theory of Just War is proportionality. And in some ways this seems fairly reasonable. Not that I really think it is a great criterion, but since Aquinas people have been taking this seriously and giving it serious thought, so for the moment so will I.

The reason I say that whoever first used this argument in the context of the current Israel-Hezbolla conflict took a philosophy class 30 years ago, is because the word "proportionality" is bandied about a lot in the context of debates about wars. It is taken seriously by scholars, and there is a reasonable intuition behind it.

However, the reason I claim that the person who originally talked about this must have forgotten everything else he learned in that class is because the way proportionality is being used, is not the way that the just war theorists talk about it.

The claim being made is that Israel is using disproportionate force against Hezbollah. However the concept of "proportionate" in just war theory is not interested in proportionate force against some enemy. What they are interested in proportionate force toward the aim that it is being used for. The theory of just war is interested in making sure you don't use nuclear weapons to sove a trade dispute, or to save the life of one of your soldiers. It is not made sure that you are evenly matched with the force you are fighting.

That is why US UN ambassador John Bolton (together, I assume, with anyone who understands just war theory) would be baffled at someone offering the proportionality argument. Bolton's response summs up our puzzlement well: "I don't quite know what the argument about proportionate force means here. Is Israel entitled only to kidnap two Hezbollah operatives and fire a couple of rockets aimlessly into Lebanon?"

Proportionality is not about tit-for-tat fighting. It is not about making sure that whatever you do to me, I do back to you. That is reprisal fighting - something that I am sure would be condemned too if Israel were doing it. Proportionality is not about making sure that you are evenly matched with your enemy. No sane responsible leader goes in to a battle evenly matched, thinking that they are merely going to inflict the same damage as was done to them. You go in to any engagement with enough force to decisevely force a victory. (The US likes a 3:1 (or is it 4:1?) ratio of force superiority.)

Proportionality in the application of just war is about two things: First making sure that you are only using the minimum amount of force to achieve your objectives - like not trying to take out a terrorist organization by killing everyone in the country it lives in. And second, it is about making sure the benefits are proportional to the costs of the engagement, like making sure that weakening an enemy on your border is worth a small high-intensity military engagement.

Proportionality seeks to make sure that if you have a responsible military goal, you don't unnecessarily deliberately kill a whole lot of other people to obtain it.

Proportionality is certainly not about tallying up the casuality list on both sides to see if one is bigger than the other. That is a morbid thing that media and propoganda groups do to made a point that has little moral relevance, but seems to make some people feel self-righteous.

So the guy remembered a soundbyte, and millions of people are repeating it without having to give the slightest thought to how much sense it makes. Any military engagement in history that has had a winner was disproportionate in the way the current argument runs, because one is doing more damage than the other. That is why no intelligent person would make that argumet.

Who would have thought

I tend not to think of myself as the type of person who tends to agree with Stanley Fish, but alas, here I do.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Petition for what?

Hillel, the Jewish student campus orginization has launched a petition which will eventually go to Kofi Annan, where undoubtely his secretary's intern might see it.

Now, while I support said petition, and the sentiment behind it, I am pretty annoyed at the wording: ". . . we respectfully ask that you join us in clearly and immediately reaffirming the right of Israel to defend its citizens and ensure its security in the face of relentless attacks, killings and kidnappings . . .".

I am mostly annoyed that anyone feels the need to ask Annan to reaffirm the right of any country, or anyone for that matter to protect its citizens. The right to self defense is the most intuitive right we have. Any philosophical justification of government starts with that as a premise. What else could justify a government, if not the protection of its citizens? The right of self-defense is not one that anyone needs granted. It is the most basic of rights we have, and it is not one that can be taken away in any case.

Why to Jews feel like they have to ask anyone for permission to live?

Has anyone else in the history of the universe ever begged someone for acknowledgement of the right to defend themselves? Has any country in the world ever feared condemnation merely for protecting itself? A country under attack, a country that just had soldiers kidnapped by an organization not bound by any Geneva conventions and has no expectation that they will live or be safe from torture, a country who put whole cities in bomb shelters, a country whose border has been infiltrated by hostile forces, a country that has been abused since inception - such a country is under no obligation to grovel, to come hat-in-hand, to humbly and meekly ask anyone's permission to defend itself.

Is there something in the Jewish American psyche that thinks that anything is OK if it sanctioned by "the world"? Or that something is only OK if it is sanctioned by "the world"? Is there some real fear that if the UN doesn't see it their way then they'll be worse off? Is there a need to justify your life, your very existence, and the lives of other Jews to a bunch of people who mostly see you as a problem rather than as a person?

A petition needs to demand respect, not be an affirmation of your right not be attacked by a terror group that exists without being accountable to any recognized body of law.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Review of Wallace's Everything and More

David Foster Wallace is obviously a very smart and tallented guy. His book Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity is just that, it is a very good history of infinity from Zeno's paradoxes to Cantor, and even through continuum hypothesis. He presents all the metaphysical issues,a nd all the discussions of infinitesmals, and everything else you always wanted to know about infinity but were too afraid that you weren't math-savvy enough to handle.

The book is not for the math-phobic. There are going to be times you might have to take it a bit slow, or read something twice, but it'll be worth it.

Wallace's style is quirky and idiosyncratic, but it works. It does not read like any other book I've ever read, but it gets the point across, and does it with a sense of humor. I loved the book, and would recommend it to anyone, x, who: has some tiny bit of mathematical competence < x < is a professional mathematician.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


I have been watching the events In south Lebanon and Northern Israel unfold for the past few days. I have ben in touch with people in both countries, ans while most people are doing fine, it really is a mess.

What does not cease to amaze me about the whole conflict is the general ignorance of the issues of the press. It is painfully clear that too many members of the press are either not very interested in presenting the isses here clearly, or they simply do not understand them.

The current conflict for example is not between ISrael and Lebanon. It is between Israel and Hizballah. It is not clear where Lebanon stands on this. (Given what governements really are, it is not clear how many governments Lebanon actually has.)

I wish all these self-styled pundits (liek the BBC) would just take a day off, go to a library, read a book, and then start broadcasting the news. It just annoys me.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Star Trek Trivia

A bit of a Star Trek trivia I picked up on my recent trip to California. What does the following stand for and where is it from? (Treat them as 6 strings of letters, each broken in two parts.)

WH GOL _______ MA RUS
CO MEA _______ JO CHE

(If you can answer this you are a total nerd, you have my genuine admiration, and should instantly get your butt here because you have too much time on your hands and need a girlfriend.)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


This is just so typical of why the Army always tells you to keep track of all your paperwork.

Added The story has him as a Captain. This cannot be his real rank. CBS apparently promoted him.

when I think back at all the crap I learned in high school . . .

I have never heard a plea for important philosophical thinking expressed this well by a high school student (or college student) ever. That is what a good thinker should be like when he or she is young. This, by the way, is what his idiot principal sounds like. (hat tip Metafilter.)


I spent the last five days in California. Interesting town there. I did lots of things, like all them touristy thingies.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

And the list grows smaller. . . .

So of the few things I still liked about the Democrat party is that, unlike their Republican counterparts they are not Jesus Freaks. That is until now. They finally come out and say something, they have a plan, and it ends up being to imitate the dumb bits of the Republican party.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Those of you who are familiar with the Aramaic expression ain kateger na'aseh saneger should find this pretty funny. Then again, even if you don't know any Aramaic, the irony should be pretty striking.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Philosophy paper about the War

It is boring at this point to cite more instances of how left-wing scholarship pervades academic life. We have all heard the stuff about left-wing indoctrination in the classroom. David Horowitz has been making a big deal about it for a long time. Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, the American Philosopical Association (an organization I happen to belong to) passed a resolution against the war by something like 1220 to 263. The fact is though, that left-wing bias invades scholarship to the point that it is clear that articles about right wing-causes are not read by anyone with a critical eye.

The latest issue of the Journal Social Theory and Practice (April 2006) has an article with the following obnoxious title: "Why (Most) Rational People Must Disapprove of the Invasion of Iraq" by C. D. Meyers.

(In case you were wondering the parenthesized "most" in the title is there to exclude nihilists, ethical egoists, and war fanatics. It fails to account for people who find obvious flaws in the argument.)

Now any competent reviewer who had an inkling of an understanding of why some people would be sympathetic with the war would not have let this article go through. It would have made the back pages of Mother Jones, or some such magazine. But STP is a real philosophy journal, and it should not have let the article go through. Having worked on more than two philosophy journals, I can tell you that reviewers frequently send back reports that say things like "this needs work" or "the author failed to tke in to account . . ." This article was a big set of straw men, and needs a lot of work.

In case you wonder whether I am just making this up, I will proceed to outline the article and draw out the problems. The argument is roughly as follows. There is a principle GR (for Golden Rule). The principle is derived from two basic assumptions that we can all accept: "UP" and "PP". (UP) or the Universalizable Principle states that if you think that it would be morally permissible to do some act A to someone, then you must think that it would also be permissible for someone to do the same to you in similar circumstances. (PP) or the Perscripitivity Principle states that if you think that it would be morally permissible for someone to do A to you, then you must consent to the idea of someone doing A to you. Together we get a formal version of the Golden Rule (GR) - if you think it would be morally permissible to do A to someone, then you must consent to the idea of someone doing A to you under similar circumstances. This does not give us a moral theory, but does put a consistency constraint on our actions. On pain of contradiction, if we accept GR, we have to consent to the idea of us having done to us, if we would do it to others.

So far so good. While I personally do not agree with GR, I am more than happy to grant it for the sake of the argument, as I have attempted to pass the exact same thing off to my own students. In my weaker moments I actually rely on it. So let us agree that GR is useful. (Meyers spends way too much space arguing against straw-man arguments like the Might Makes Right Principle which I have no interest in here, nor do I need to deal with it for my purposes.)

But does GR compel us, on pain of irrationality (remember the title of the article) to oppose the war in Iraq? Prima facie the answer is obviously no. (How Chris Meyers got "yes" I am not sure; Wittgenstein’s phrase “in the grip of a theory” comes to mind.)

Before we elaborate as to why, let us clear a few things up, that the author fails to do. First we must ask what an Iraqi is. Clearly it is a citizen of Iraq. But are (or, more precisely, "were at the time of the US invasion") all citizens of Iraq the same? Clearly no. Are they all identical qua citizen? The answer again is clearly no.

The argument asks us to put ourselves in the position of the Iraqi and ask if we would have consented to be invaded under similar circumstances. The answer I would think is obviously yes. Naturally I am not in favor of some random country preemptively attacking my country for no reason. That is unjustified and would probably unnecessarily disrupt my life with no benefit to me, and possible harm to many things I care about. Even if I was in the place of the average Iraqi I would probably not want to have it invaded for no reason.

But was that what happened? No. The US articulated many reasons for the invasion of Iraq. Again it is boring to articulate them here. But some are called "after-the-fact justifications" by Meyers, so it is worth remembering that many justifications were articulated before-the-fact. Specifically the humanitarian issues. Meyers discusses human rights abuses, but misses the relevant points. Let me explain. Meyers asks whether we would consent to be invaded by a democracy like France or Israel if we lived in a non-democracy like Saudi Arabia. I have no idea why this is similar. Who would consent to be invaded by anyone by dint of the styles of governments of the invading and invaded countries?

The key issue here, and what would make the situations similar is whether you, if you were in a country where you were completely politically disenfranchized to the point of torture and genocide, would consent to your country being invaded for the sake of (or partially for the sake of) your liberation. It is hard to imagine a scenario where I would hesitate to say "yes". Naturally if I was a resident of Halabja or Dujail or of a Kurdish or Shite group that had been oppressed for decades I would welcome the opportunity to have my country invaded.

By the way, the morality of the cause is independent of the emphasized reason. Many reasons were articulated. Some by the administration officially, some by intellectuals and cabinet members informally. And lest you need to be reminded of how clear this reason was stated, the official name of the war is OIF, or Operation Iraqi Freedom. I assume that makes it clear that at least one goal of the invasion has something to do with freeing Iraqis. That is not to deny that there were other stated goals of the war, some which in retrospect were way off base. But the important thing is that there were clearly articulated politically enfranchising goals articulated. Everyone who watched the news heard Bush talk about freedom for Iraq repeatedly.

Now, back to an earlier point, Iraqis come in many varieties. Meyers tries to get us to think in terms of being part of the Iraqi political establishment. (It is clear he has never identified with a disenfranchised person before. Spoiled white boy. ) Even if I were a Sunni, who was part of a political elite would I consent to the idea of an invasion of my country? The answer again, if I was following the GR, would have to be yes because despite the fact that I am the disenfranchiser, if I followed the GR, I would want to be invaded if I was in the circumstance of the disenfranchised.

To make the last paragraph clearer, let us make a rough analogy to something closer to home, namely the invasion of the US. The US has been invaded in defense of oppressed minorities - in the US Civil War.

If I were a slave in the south prior to the Civil War, I certainly would have sanctioned someone stepping in and invading the US for the purpose of ending slavery. As a matter of fact, in retrospect, I heartily approve of the US Government doing it itself. (The fact that ending slavery wasn't the primary, or even stated goal is irrelevant. It was a goal, however secondary, and an intended consequence that would justify the invasion.) I would wonder if Meyers would have sided with Lincoln even if there was not credible evidence that the south would have seeceded from the Union. It is easy to argue that invasion or war of various sorts might be justified for the sake of political enfranchisement. Certainly it would not be irrational. If it were, then any peoples violently fighting for enfranchisement of any sort are automatically wrong. This is highly counterintuitive. While non-violent measures sometimes work, say in the case of India overthrowing British colonial rule, there is little reason to think that it will be the case in general.

So I am not sure where the charge of irrationality comes in. Actually I am. If you are part of an oppressive majority (or in the Iraq case the 20% oppressive minority Sunni), it would be irrational to consent to the idea that you would want to be invaded. But if you are any other Iraqi, naturally you would hope that someone ended your oppression - even at considerable cost. So that being said, can I apply the GR to myself. Yes. If the US government decided to politically disenfranchise me, to the point where (1) there was a dictator and I couldn't freely vote for the candidate of my choice and was thus effectively politically disenfranchised, and (2) I did not have the usual personal liberties like freedom from religious discrimination, freedom of speech, the press, or assembly, (3) my ethnic group was the target of genocidal policies, e.g., the gassing of my town to death, or general rounding up and imprisoning and torturing members of my ethnic group, then yes, I would have to say that I would want to have my country invaded and toppled in favor of a better one.

It is hard to gauge the actual attitude of Iraqis, especially those who benefited from the fall of Saddam Hussein, but a common refrain immediately after the invasion was "Thanks for ousting Saddam, now go home." Attitudes like this indicate that one can be an Iraqi and rationally want Saddam ousted by US violence.

Now nothing I just wrote is all that novel or deep. But it was generally ignored by Meyers. The only hint he makes toward addressing this is the "threshold problem". This says that we needn't do more than the situation warrants. I am unclear what this actually means. It is from the original Just War Theory, that says that the response ought not to be greater than the problem. Earlier on in the article Meyers wisely said that he will not assume any of classical Just War Theory because that would need independent justification, which one can disagree with. So why is he relying on it now? I would never agree to the proportionality constraint. Moreover, a few sentences later he says that "the Ba'ath regime was nowhere near as oppressive as the Taliban government in Afghanistan". Um, I beg to differ. You have to ignore issues of genocide to make that statement. (Recall that as of today Saddam Hussein is on trial for crimes against humanity. No such charges are raised against anyone in Afghanistan. Nor has anyone asked for there to be some.)

So in sum, I can make a few banal statements about the disenfranchised of Iraq, and rationally agree to have my country be invaded, yet his article gets published. Why is the Left so exempt form having to put any thought in to their work?

Saturday, June 10, 2006


I spent the last two weeks at WLC in Fort Dix. WLC is an NCO training academy. It was tiring, but good training. I took the day to recouperate.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Speaking of irony

I can't believe this was done with a straight face.

AFT - where the picture is funnier than the thousand words

That American Federation of Teachers publishes a stupid rag called "On Campus". This paper is not really web-savvy enough to put its pictures on its website, but if it was, this article about "academic freedom" and the proposal by David Horowitz to institute a campus bill of rights. The picture that accompanies the article in the print edition (which I'll scan one day if I get around to it) depicts Michael Berube holding a counter rally (apparently to a Republican rally) and press conference with about 14 students. 10 of the students are clearly depicted wearing identical T-shirts with the slogan:

Horowitz: We can think for ourselves! We don't need your outside agenda.

I wonder how many of them see the irony in 10 people standing behind a demogogue, sloganeering in concert, insisting that they all have the ability to think for themselves.

(This was also reported here and here, neither with pictures.

(I also figure that these rallies and counter rallies were planned at least a day or two in advance as they needed to groupthink the slogan, get and distribute them, and plan on wearing them and assembling. I note this because it is unlike what seems to be implied here suggesting that they somehow found a whole bunch of people to just protest Horowitz.

(And this is a side note to the girl (whose name is apparently Jamie) in the front with the ugly glasses with the offending T-shirt holding a sign that says "Socrates was dangerous too": I take it you never read any Plato.)

By the way, just for the record, I am well behind the sentiment that drives Horowitz, and I think it is the natural reaction to what the left does on college campuses. It is nothing short of horrifying and boderline intellectual student abuse. (whatever that is). . . . That being said, I am pretty sure I am against a bill of rights of this sort. I am really not comfortable with government drafting legislation telling people how to teach in college. I really don't want big brother there. But I really do want today's liberal educators to see what messages they are sending to the country. Let them sweat a little.

Monday, May 22, 2006

. . . where credit is due

For the record, I was the one who left this note on UOJ's blog. It sounds a lot more bitter than I actually am, and the last sentece is more to make people think than an actual truth. It really is, however, a sentiment I felt for a long time though. (It looks like it managed to, at least temporarily, halt discussion. NOT my intention.)

Life imitates. . .

Ali G?

Those of you who recognize this exchange:

"There's a lot to protest at McDonald's."
"Sure, but mostly it's the ketchup thing."

should find this article amusing.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Follow-up to the Kolko-Margolis previous post

I had not realized how much venom there is toward Margolis out there. Naturally I always hated the guy. I am not even sure why. Back when I was in first grade, I remember thinking that he was pretty scummy. I once wrote a short story whose principle bad-guy was "R Margo" the head of an evil empire of child slave laborers. It was a sci-fi story, which as I think about it now, was probably pretty good for a first-grader. I have since lost the story, but once tried to recreate it.

In first grade, I had Rabbi Andrusia(sp?) OB"M, the other first-grade rebbi, so I did not interact much with Kolko. He was really nice. As I recall he used to give out paper-clips when you did something good, and then if you accumulated enough of them, you were somehow rewarded. But I digress.

Here is the text of the lawsuit. The comments make clear that Margolis has LOTS of people who really hate him in the orthodox community.

My family's own interaction with Margolis was when I left Torah Temimah. I started there in pre-one-A. My brother and I were both in the school, I was in middle of 9th grade, and he was a few grades younger (about 4th grade). I was not having a good schooling experience (I detested (I think the late) Rabbi Berkowitz who then was the principle of the high school, and the whole place was way to "frummy" for me.). (I have no idea why I didn't bail after elementary school with a lot of my friends and classmates.) Perhaps it was because of the anecdote that follows. But, there was some "agreement" between me and Berkowitz that I would be better off somewhere else, though I do not recollect the details to well. My brother on the other hand was really doing fine in the school, and was fitting in nicely, and had great relationships with his rabbeim.

To make a long story short, when I was going to switch to the Mir, Margolis sat down with my father and explained that if the school wasn't frum enough for me, it was not appropriate for my brother either, and he would have to be pulled from the school. This of course created a problem, because my brother really did not want to switch, and I needed to. So my brother was asked to leave because I wasn't fitting in. Or, I could have stayed and suffered there so that my brother could fit in. (Again, this "blackmail" of my parents might have taken place after eighth grade when so many of my friends were leaving the school, and Margolis needed to keep some of us and prevent a mass exodus. I am hazy on the details.)

At the end we both left, and I am sure we are both better off for it. I don't think my brother regrets it much, and I am sure as hell glad I left. Though I do have to admit, educationally speaking, it really was the best school of its type out there. If all you cared about was learning well, it was a good place to be.

(I do recall having Kolko substitute once or twice for some science class I had in a low grade and I remember thinking at the time that this guy has no understanding of how the weather works. I didn't either, but I am sure he didn't. (Neither did my 5th grade rebbi, but that's another story.))

I however wasn't the "fitting-in" type, especially to a place I really didn't like much. I was actually in Camp Agudah for a summer, and Ma-Na-Vu for one summer. Kolko was no longer involved in Agudah when I was there. But he did own (together with Rabbi Klein, and I think someone else) camp Ma-Na-Vu. I think that my first real interaction with Kolko was when he called me in to his office to give me a Ma-Na-Vu jacket with my name sewn on. It creeps me out now to think that he might have been checking me out. I did like the jacket though. Rumor also has it that the rumors that were spreading about Kolko years ago had something to do with why Kolko and Klein split over Ma-Na-Vu. Kolko then went to head Torah Temimah's Camp Silver Lake. I'll also admit I have few distinct memories of either camp (or the YTT day camp I went to earlier on). I did not particularly enjoy the whole experience.

I again digress, though as I write this I am thankful that my story is not like his or his. Apparently though the 3rd plaintiff in the lawsuit has joined the US Army, so we have something in common. And I thought I was the only Torah Temimah graduate to ever have done that.

Having the press convict Kolko before all the facts are out is one thing, but there is still no excuse for Margolis' behavior. If Kolko was a sexual predator he should have gotten help and been kept far away from children. And this should have happened via the courts long ago. But it is abundantly clear that Margolis spent a lot of time shielding Kolko from the repercussions of the rumors, and spent a lot of time denying them and covering them up. And that is the truly malicious thing here. Knowing the rumors, it is his job to find the truth, protect the students, and the covering up is clear. One does not close ranks when the well being of the children in your care is at stake.

Monday, May 15, 2006

This should have been done years ago

The Orthodox Jewish world has known about this for a while, and there have been rumors, and public letters, but finally something is being done.

I was actually in this guy's school for almost 10 years. (I spent a summer at his camp too.) Thankfully I have nothing to report, nor have I ever heard anything first hand. But Margolis always struck everyone I know who ever encountered him as very smarmy. He is the real problem here. I hope justice is served here. And I feel really bad for the guy in the article.

Darfur is the new Rwanda

So the past few months there has been a lot of talk about what to do with Darfour in the Sudan. At this point we should pretty much be waiting for the book to come out, and then ask Cheadle if he is up for Hotel Darfour.

Some 200,000 people have already been killed.

I remember not being able to get anyone interested in the Sudanese slave trade when I was an undergraduate 10 years ago (and we formed a group then caled ASAP to do this, which I will write more about some other time). I remember both candidates fobbing the Sudan question during the debates, I remember it being refered to the UN who has still done nothing. I wonder if there is still an active committee dealing with this.Weren't they on the human rights committee last year?

But now that the problem boils down to just helping refugees, everyone wants to get involved.

Messed up world we live in. People too scared of not looking politically correct when they ask someone to actually do something.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Higher Ed Today

The New School has invited Sen. John McCain to speak at commencement this year. However, as you would expect from a school like this, there was no shortage of student outrage. Apparently McCain does not like homosexuality. A student who helped organize the dissent, Harper Keenan, is quoted as saying something that pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with college education today. He says "In all of our classes we’re taught the value of inclusion of all people, and we’re taught to question our leaders."

I can hear these same words being parroted on campuses across the nation.

In all our classes we are taught to question authority, but we are never taught to question all of our classes. How sad, that students just believe whatever they are taught to believe when it comes from people they approve of. Someone should tell him that just because they are taught something, does not mean it is dogma. Professors are as fallible (if not more falliable) as anyone else.

Secondly, if there is one thing they should have learned in college, it is that as J. S. Mill might put it, there is nothing more valuable then hearing your views collide with views that you disagree with. It is only the foolish and unlearned, and those who hope to stay that way, who want to hear only voices of people they already agree with.

Thirdly, I am wondering why this "inclusion" that the New School sophmore spoke of, does not manage to extend to John McCain. Isn't his voice one that he has not heard much of around the New School? Or are we to take it to mean that the value of inclusion only extends as far as the 20 or 30 percent of people (in this country) who New School Students are generally likely to agree with?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Inside Man: Is it good for the Jews?

(Spoilers inside)

A few days ago I saw Spike Lee's Inside Man. It was an OK movie, and on some level I found it amusing. It was actually about a rather clever bank heist pulled off by a few people that quickly seems to turn in to a messy hostage negotiation. Denzel Washington plays the negotiator and is the only real multidimensional character in the film.

Rather quickly one begins to root for the bad guy, and after a while, so do the good guys. The real bad guys become apparent soon enough.

The plot is about the bank robbery that never really took place. At the end of the day the thieves, after meticulusly planning the robbery did not take a heck of a lot of stuff, nor did they want to. Actually for a while they can't find anything that was really taken. They took a very select few things. You are never really told how they found about about them, nor do we see any of the back story, and that is what makes me suspicious.

I could of couse concentrate here on the actual movie, but I suspect that Spike Lee might not have had the best of intentions here with the film. Allow me to elaborate. (Here is where the real spoilers start.) As the old joke goes: A Jewish kid goes to his granfather and says "The Yankees won the World series!" To which the granfather replies "Nu, is that good for the Jews?"

I could not help thinking about this at the end of Inside man. The real story is that there is a group of Jews who somehow find out that some big Wall Street bank was started by exploiting something Nazi. Not sure exactly what, but that the owner took advantage of some rich Jews and ended up with the money to start the bank. A cabal comprised of a hanful of Jews decided to plan the ultimate heist and steal the proof of this from the bank. They somehow discovered this, and all they took was the proof and a handful of diamonds that were from that era. The implication was that this would all be used to blackmail the founder of the bank. The founder of the bank went through some trouble to try to prevent this and the bitch who was hired to help bury this took his money and didn't feel very bad for the guy either.

So my question is this: What was Spike Lee trying to sho with this movie? Was he trying to tell a clever story and needed a good plot? Was he trying to show how clever some dedicated Jews are? Was he trying to show that there are these shadowy Jews with a very long memories who will right historical wrongs? What was he getting at.

Honestly, it was not clear which of these sentiments he conveyed. Probably all of them. But I still can't tell you if that is good for the Jews.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

left, right and far left

Reflecting on my last post, I was thinking that there is a clear difference between the left and the right in this country right now. It is this difference that is costing the left a lot of votes. It most likely cost them my vote in the last election, and there is a good chance it will cost them my vote in the next election.

Currently the party in power, at least as far as the executive branch is concerned is neoconservative. That is the more or less official ideology of the current administration. Neoconservatives diverge from conservatives in many many ways. Neocons are not isolationists. Conservatives can go either way. Neocons are not Christian fundamentalists. Conservatives are. Neocons are not anti-abortion. Conservatives are. . . Neocons do not have much to say about stem cell research. Conservatives are opposed. Neocons are not opposed to some pieces of a welfare state. Conservatives generally are. Neocons are not opposed to big government. Conservatives are. Conservatives favor big business. Neocons, at least officially, have no stated preference. There is a long history of toleration for minorities in the neocon tradition, though not in the conservative one. The list goes on and on.

On the other hand when one thinks of the left and the radical left, there is very little real difference. They both favor an increased welfare state. (Perhaps the left is not asking for a real communist government, whereas the radical left sometimes does.) They both favor abortion, gay marraige, no foreign military interventions, anti-unilateralism, increased government intervention in matters of equality, safety, etc.

Moreover the rhetoric always binds together every facet of the movement, so that you can't really taken anything singly. So if you are ever opposed to a view you are opposed to all of them. A rally for one position always turns out to be a rally for every left-wing and far left wing opinion out there. So the rally for the illegal immigrant amnesty had pro-palestinian people, anti-war demonstrators, the usual anti-Bush crowd. From the stories the paper carried there seemed to be nothing on the left you could not be supporting. If you loved Mexian immigrants but also favored the war in Iraq, you were alienated. There is no way to be a good leftist these days without favoring some whole package.

The right is now split. You can have a Christian fundamentalist view, and be a traditional conservative, or you can be a neoconservative. They have to join forces for the moment because there is no hope for such a schism on the left. So as long as the left is a package, the right will be one too.

Those on the left seem to feel that any agreement with the right is selling uout. Leiberman traditionally gets branded a traitor to the left because he is a democrat who does not seem to vicerally hate Bush, even though Bush beat him in an election. The left has a lot of work to do before it can declare itself in line with mainstream America.

Monday, May 01, 2006


In the United States, Labor day is celebrated on the first Monday in September. In communist countries, and in countries that are far more sympathetic to various kinds of left-wing socialism, the traditional day for celebrating the workers and their achievements is May 1, or today. May 1 has been associated with the left, and leftist movements since around 1886.

One wonders which marketing idiot came up with the idea to choose today to protest for the rights of illegal immigrants undocumented persons, and then on top of that to start with the national anthem in Spanish. (Notice in the link that no one bothered to proofread the site.)

Somebody failed to explain to radicals that the reason they are considered radical is because there are not a hell of a lot of people around here who share their neo-Marxist vision of the universe. That being said, the way to get the US to agree with you is not to go around and rub in their face how different the illegal immigrants are and how very much they want to change our social system. The establishment likes our social system. If they didn't, they'd change it. They have that power because that is what it is to be the establishment.

So lemme give a little advice to radicals. Give it up. Realize that unless you really have the whole society behind you, which you really don't in this case, to get what you want, you show the American people that you want to part of their way of life, not that you plan on radically altering it to accommodate you.

I realize that a huge social system and greater welfare net will help illegal immigrants. After all it would be great to just sneak in to a country and then take their welfare and spit on their way of life, and mock their rules. I realize that more rights for people who came in to this country illegally is important, and that it is only a matter of time before you demand affirmative action for people who are illegally here.

But you seem to not realize that if you want American sympathy do it in a way that shows what you can do for America, not what you expect America to do for you. Do not sneal in to the country illegally just to tell us that your idea of a social system is so much better than ours. If your idea is so good, then go try it in your own country. Of did you already try it, screw it up, and now you want to do the same to mine.

I appreciate that I was born here, and I have rights, and I have it a lot easier than you did in your country. I sympathize with you. However, I also expect that you appreciate that however my ancestors got here, they did so legally, and they followed US law, filled out US forms, learned a bit of English, paid US taxes, however inconvenient that was.

You have all officially lost any sympathy I would have had for you. By holding a rally on a day that is symbolic for a small minority of the US population, and is considered insulting to those millions who were killed for the sake of some glorious revolution, you have alienated those middle of the political spectrum types who would otherwise think that you just want to come to the US to share in our verison of the good life and make this country home.

This whole thing is really a sign of how out of touch the left is with mainstream America.

Update: I'd like to (crib an email I just wrote to) clarify what I wrote above, just so no one gets the wrong idea.

Whenever I start to feel some sympathy for a leftist cause, like I did this time, someone goes and makes it in to a radical left cause.

I mean, I think that everyone can sympathize with someone who says "look, I’m from a shitty country like Mexico. I came here to work and be a part of a better system and a better economy with more opportunities." But no one said that very loudly. All we saw was (1) it was held on May Day, a day with a lot of symbolic significance for a different kind of economy, ie, a socialist and/or communist economy. (2) There were flags of dozens of countries, especially Mexico, ie, people who are proud that they have a strong allegiance to somewhere else and intent on reminding everyone that the US is not necessarily their favorite country, and (3) they go and announce that the national anthem is just as meaningful in Spanish, telling us that the language of the people here is not for them either.

I mean if you really want US rights, why run around carring a foreign flag, a symbol of your pride is some other place??? Seriously, why?

So as I see it, they display a rejection of our economic system, our social system, our language, and any pretense of loyalty to the US, and then I’m supposed to support this? The message they should have sent was the one I said before: "Mexico-crap, US-good. Please take me in, I’ll help continue making this country great!" I would totally have sympathy with someone who articulated that, and I'd be inclined to look for a solution that does not involve the INS and deportations. Moreover, I’ll bet that a huge chunk of illegal aliens really believe that. But they have organizers who have communist and revolutionary interests at heart and not the interests of the illegal aliens themselves.