What does it mean?

May 02, 2004


Amritas’s post about “octolingual Michel Thomas” reminded me of my paternal grandmother. She spoke five languages when she emigrated to the United States, none of them English. Her first language was Yiddish, often referred to as Mama Loshen by native speakers. (“Loshen” comes from Hebrew “lashon” – tongue, language. I presume you can guess what “mama” means.) She also spoke Ukrainian, the local language of the non-Jews; Hungarian, the official language of the area at the time; Hebrew, which she learned in Hebrew school; and German, the prestige language of Eastern Europe at the time.

She came from the town of Yasina (here called Jasinja), in what is now called Transcarpathia. This area was part of Hungary before World War I, when my grandmother lived there. After World War I it became part of Czechoslovakia, though it was neither Czech nor Slovak. After World War II it became part of the Ukraine. I found a remarkable interview on Teen Ink, by “Lindsay K.,” of a man from the same town. Though a generation younger than my grandmother, his description of Yasina corroborates hers.

We used to have to chop wood for the stove in the winter to heat the house. Most of the time we didn't have enough wood, so the only room with heat was the kitchen.

One of my grandmother’s stories told how in the winter, they would close down most of the house and live in the one heated room.

In the winter, it was very dangerous to walk at night. There were no lights, and there were wolves.

Another story told how in the winter, the wolves would come down from the mountains, into town.

The bulk of the interview tells the harrowing story of the interviewee during World War II. Transcarpathia was taken back by Hungary, though its Jews weren’t given Hungarian citizenship. Ironically, because Hungary was an ally of the Nazis, Hungary’s Jews were spared deportation to the concentration camps until fairly late in the war. As a result 25% of them survived, a relatively high proportion. My grandmother’s parents, and many brothers and sisters were not among the lucky. The interview gives me an idea of their probable end.

The morning after our lamp was taken, we heard screaming outside. When we went into the street, we saw German and Hungarian soldiers throwing Jews out of their homes and herding them with sticks. The Jews lived in the main part of town, and the peasants, who lived up in the mountains, came down. The soldiers herded us with the rest of the Jews. My mother was wearing a thin dress and wanted to go back to get her coat, but they made her leave without it. They beat her because she asked to get it.

They took us to the Jewish cemetery and shaved off the rabbis' beards. We were there for several days, guarded by the Hungarian townspeople who had been our neighbors and friends. There was a lot of screaming. They were going to kill us all with machine guns.

The interviewee, however, survived, and was able to tell his story:

We ran through the woods all night, hearing dogs barking and knowing that we were being chased. Eventually, tired and hungry and still in our striped uniforms, we heard the Russians at their front. We ran toward them with our hands up yelling, "Jew."

The Russians put us up against a wall to shoot us, but one officer who was Jewish stopped them. He told us not to say we were Jewish, because the Russians hated us.

We were on our way again, cold, frightened and starving. We came to a farm and hid in the hayloft. At another deserted house, I found a black coat, hat and cane with a silver handle for the rabbi. He looked like a real rabbi again.

I wanted to get as far away as possible. We came to a railroad crossing and saw the engine coming. I told the rabbi to jump on the engine and hold on tight. When the train came, I jumped on but the rabbi did not make it.

Although we were both very weak, at 19, I could make the jump. The train traveled about two kilometers, and when I realized he was not there, I jumped off and walked back. I found the old man sitting in the grass, crying like a baby.

I never left him until we made it to Czechoslovakia. He was reunited with his oldest son in a small town there. We parted and he gave me a blessing. The year was 1945.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:59 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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May 03, 2004


There are four kinds of evil in the world.

1. Corruption
2. Amorality
3. Evil for a good cause
4. Evil intent

All human institutions suffer to some extent from corruption, but for some of them, corruption is their primary purpose.

Most of the world’s regimes are corrupt.

The Roman Empire is an example of an amoral regime – it would do what was necessary to maintain its power – including genocide, but it did not pursue these methods when its power wasn’t threatened.

The Soviet Union is an example of pursing evil for a good cause. I consider this more immoral than amorality – both for the practical reason that it usually results in more evil than simple amorality (the “good” cause never goes away), but also because it confuses the thinking of good people, who find themselves unable to distinguish between the good and evil.

Nazi Germany is an example of Evil intent. The foundations of the regime – its declared purpose, its reason to be – was evil.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:07 AM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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Uh, David, how can you distinguish between 3 and 4? Have you read Mein Kampf, or even selected quotes from it? Hitler (ym"sh) thought he was doing the world a favor. And how could you say that communism is a "good" cause? Have you read any Marx? You didn't put quotes around the word "good," so are you implying that communism has some redeeming value in any way?! Communism, and it's (very) close cousin Nazism (National SOCIALIST German WORKER'S Party) are both intrinsically evil. There is not one redeeming feature of either (very similar) ideology.

Posted by: Scott at May 5, 2004 10:49 AM Permalink

Just came across this by accident as I was wanting to compare amorality and evil-or at least find a discussion of such a comparison.

I must say, though, that I strongly disagree as equating amorality as an evil.

Some of the most important philosophical systems have promoted amorality as a developmental neccessity (philosphical Taoism, Nietzsche) and I would tend to agree. Amorality is not evil and saying that it is a gross distortion. Amorality is not immorality.

Posted by: Paul at January 18, 2005 05:13 PM Permalink


I am taking three days vacation (starting today). See you Thursday!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:10 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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A while ago, I wrote an essay on the Mona Lisa, published in the faculty bulletin of Brown University. I think you would enjoy reading it, and I'd love to hear what you think of it -- in your blog or otherwise:



Posted by: Dina at May 4, 2004 04:50 AM Permalink

May 05, 2004

Tribal and Individual

Amritas gives me his first in-context link. Needless to say, I am very gratified. He says:

David Boxenhorn made me see that humans are caught between being tribal animals and truly independent beings.

I started this blog because I wanted to communicate. Communicate what? Just communicate – humans are communicating beings, it is one of our defining characteristics. (This is one aspect of our tribal nature – individuals have no need to communicate.) However, if I were to pick one thing, it would be my worldview. I don’t have the time or inclination to sit down and write it out in one cohesive fell swoop – writing these short posts are enough of a challenge for me. But I’ve put a lot of time and effort into figuring out my worldview, and I hope that with the passage of time it will become clear.

I don’t know how Amritas meant his statement, but if I put on my western-culture hat for a moment, it sounds negative to me – it sounds like humans should strive to overcome their tribal past and be “independent beings.” To me, this is a lost cause – we can’t change our nature, and any attempt to deny it only makes us miserable.

Putting my own hat back on, it sounds different (perhaps this is what Amritas meant, too?) – humans are both tribal animals and independent beings. With the proper attitude, these two ideas are not contradictory.

אם אין אני לי מי לי
וכשאני לעצמי מה אני

Im eyn ani li mi li
Ukhshe’ani l`asmi ma ani

If I am not for myself who will be for me
And when I am only for myself what am I

Talmud, Pirqey Avot 1:14

This is deeper than it seems in translation. The Hebrew doesn’t use the word “only” in the second line; instead it uses two different words for “for myself”. The word it uses in the second line can also be translated as “by myself”.

The individual strengthens his individuality by strengthening the tribe, and the tribe strengthens its tribalness by strengthening the individual. This is no play on words, nor is it a ruse to fool people into supporting socialism – I most emphatically reject socialism as a dehumanizing idea. I also reject that stream of rational-individualist thought that denies our native tribal inclinations – that irrationally builds a system of values that is incompatible with human nature, and asks that we reject our nature in favor of “the truth”. I prefer what I might call a “neo-rational” solution, which satisfies both reason and human nature – my personal version of Occam’s razor – a truth that also makes us happy and psychologically healthy. According to this truth, being “caught between being tribal animals and truly independent beings” is not a curse, but a blessing. But more important, it is the truth that we must live with whether we admit it or not.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:51 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Teleological Ideas

Scott writes:

Uh, David, how can you distinguish between 3 [Evil for a good cause – DB] and 4 [Evil intent – DB]? Have you read Mein Kampf, or even selected quotes from it? Hitler (ym"sh) thought he was doing the world a favor. And how could you say that communism is a "good" cause? Have you read any Marx? You didn't put quotes around the word "good," so are you implying that communism has some redeeming value in any way?! Communism, and it's (very) close cousin Nazism (National SOCIALIST German WORKER'S Party) are both intrinsically evil. There is not one redeeming feature of either (very similar) ideology.

My intent was not to compare Hitler and Marx, but to compare the movements they created, and especially the mindset of their followers. I know a lot of good people who were taken in by Marxist rhetoric precisely because they felt that people shouldn’t suffer poverty, and some people shouldn’t be richer than others. I cannot condemn these ideals as evil, and in a certain sense I share them myself. It becomes evil (and absurd) when you think that killing people is a legitimate method for achieving these goals.

Good people were taken in by communism because they couldn’t give up their teleological ideas (as Steven Den Beste would say) – it should be true therefore it must be true.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:22 PM  Permalink | Comments (3)
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I think you misunderstand. Remaking Hitler and the Nazis into right-wing extremists is one of the greatest (perhaps THE greatest) single propaganda achievements of the 20th century. Hitler and his Nazi movement shared the idealism of communism because they were kissing cousins. I capitalized "SOCIALIST" and "WORKER'S" to emphasize this shared heritage in the Nazi party with communism. The mindset you believe you know is a myth. The protesting, rioting youth of today share very much in outlook AND action with their Nazi forbears.

Think it's a stretch? Read this article recasting Hitler as a modern Democratic candidate (http://www.techcentralstation.com/010804A.html). Okay, I gave away the shock value of the article, but my point stands. You can't separate certain opinions or positions from the odious ideology they spring from. Besides that, they are demonstrably false, because whenever a (communist OR Nazi) leftist is given a choice to help people or further their beliefs, they will choose the latter. DDT saved MILLIONS of lives before it was banned, and reintroducing it today in a controlled, responsible fashion would do the same. But every single time, a leftist will choose (falsely, if you look into it) the environment (which DDT never really damaged as horrifically as the anti-DDT activists insisted) over improving people's lives and well-being. The same goes for policies that reduce poverty. In case after case, leftists will choose the policy that prolongs poverty because to do otherwise, would be to admit that they are wrong.

Posted by: Scott at May 9, 2004 12:47 PM Permalink

Scott, I don't misunderstand your point, I am making a different point of my own. That's okay, it's one of the advantages of this medium.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 10, 2004 11:31 AM Permalink

David, perhaps *I* am misunderstanding your point.

It seems like you are saying that something like Nazism is inherently evil but that something like Communism, while evil, has some "good" points worthy of distinguishing it from Nazism. I tried to point out that Nazism had many, if not most, of the same "good" points (read the article I linked to for an in depth analysis).

I then pointed out that what leftists (and here I include Nazis and Communists) believe (the examples you provided dealt with poverty and the "rich-poor gap") is irrelevant because when given the option to choose between ideology and helping people, they'll choose ideology every time. So both are inherently and irredemably evil ideologies regardless of any subjective good points they possess.

I also say subjective, because the two examples you selected violate two tenets of Judaism (there will always be poor people and prohibition against coveting other's property, regardless of how "rich" they are). If you meant that we have a personal obligation to help those less fortunate than us, and that very wealthy people have a greater (also personal) obligation, I'm with you 100%. Beliefs such as "people shouldn?t suffer poverty" or "people shouldn?t be richer than others" have been used to justify murdering millions of people. I know you didn't say you shared these beliefs, but you did say you cannot condem them, and even sympathized with them.

If you want to try to come up with different examples for your points, feel free, but as they stand, the examples you provide are distinctions without a difference.

If I misunderstand your please, please clarify.

Posted by: Scott at May 10, 2004 12:46 PM Permalink

May 06, 2004

Detail thinkers, Holistic thinkers - Part 2

Steven Den Beste has linked to me! I must confess, this is a big moment for me. SDB is one of my favorite bloggers, and it is a great honor to be in a dialog with him.

I have a busy day today, but I have deferred some things to give me time for a quick response. Steven says:

It's not true that I have trouble with quick processing, though. Part of why nitpicky reader mail annoys me so much is that it frustrates me.

This is in response to the following, from my post:

And one of the characteristics of holistic thinkers, especially very strongly holistic thinkers like SDB, is an impatience with details. The reason for this, is that holistic thinkers have trouble with (or may be incapable of) quick processing.

I should have been more precise – I meant to say, “…an impatience with details that are not easily derived from the holistic thinker’s internal model”. Details that are clearly part of the internal model are not really details – they are part of the whole. When pointed out to an holistic thinker, the (said or unsaid) reaction is “that’s obvious” – and when the holistic thinker hasn’t previously noticed this obvious point, it could well be a “Eureka” moment, because it could cause all kinds of things to fall into place.

To an external observer, this could look like a paradox. The external observer sees a person who takes in some details instantly, and has an abnormal degree of trouble with other details. If the holistic thinker’s internal model were visible, the difference would be obvious.

So, when I said, “quick processing”, I was referring to the assimilation of details that are not “obvious”. The first reaction of an holistic thinker to a detail of this sort is to ask, “how is it relevant to my internal model”. This is the action that does not lend itself to quick processing. There are four possible answers:

1. It fits into my model in a way which wasn’t at first obvious to me.
2. I must revise my model to account for this detail.
3. It isn’t relevant to my model.
4. It refutes my model – i.e. my model is wrong.

If, instead, he were to ask, “is this detail relevant to this other detail that I was talking about” he would be able to process it much more quickly.

It is certainly possible that Steven is adept at doing both. I guess I have to revise my internal model of him.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:24 AM  Permalink | Comments (6)
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Trackback from Dialectic, A Win is a Win is a Win:
Wow, thanks to Steven for the footnote! If my webstats were still working (helloooooo?....Simon?....), I bet the sitemeter dial would be spinning faster than it ever has before. Well, that's all well and good, but I'm not writing for hits, I'm writing ...


Steven may be many things: arrogant, frightening, irresponsible, immature, blustery, paranoid, delusional, misanthropic, jingoistic, ignorant, politically naive, violent, evangelical, and detail oriented come to mind.

But he is one of the last people I would consider "holistic."

He has constructed a nice comic book fantasy world by carefully excluding any actual holistic information and concentrating on a handful of specific details, which, to be sure, he tangles up in a complex web of spurrious connections that I'm sure make sense to him. But, constructing overly complex yet simplistic models while excluding all inconvenient facts and opinions is hardly a description of holistic.

He whines that people pick apart his detail. Well, the truth is, that is all he has: piles and piles of detail. 'But they don't see the whole picture' is a common refrain in his writing. Of course, he fails to notice that there is no whole picture, just a bunch of randomly scattered dots. When you look at his whole, there is no pattern, except in his imagination. His people are cardboard cutouts. His enemies are cut-and-pasted from Middle School textbooks and B movies. He's read little history, knows little science outside his professional experience, cannot understand people and their motivations, and has a very undeveloped moral sense. Were he a speaker, he might be compared with Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, or others of that ilk.

The last time writers and speakers of his kind were in ascendency, a hundred million people died in short order.

Posted by: dnadan56 at May 6, 2004 06:24 PM Permalink

To dnadan56:

Let me just take a wild guess here: You're a liberal.

Posted by: Joe Bonforte at May 6, 2004 07:13 PM Permalink

I think I understand why Mr. DenBeste has the reaction he has to email. It's because of his career.

I think he views emails as bug reports.

Not many non-engineers truly understand bug reports. Basically, you spend months or years designing a product, then release it to an internal test group. They "pound" on the system, doing everything they can to make it fail--and a good test group are great at breaking your work.

When they do find something, they file a bug report. A good bug report tells what the problem is, what was done to demonstrate the problem, the severity of the problem, and occasionally even recommends corrective action. Any decent engineer welcomes these kinds of reports, as they help us correct the "holistic" model, making a better product--and avoiding having the customer find the bug at the most disastrous moment.

Then there are the not-so-good bug reports. These are the ones that detect a trivial or cosmetic error (one that has no effect on the product's functionality, and might not even be seen by a customer), and decided that this should be a "must fix/show stopper"--halt everything, and focus every resource the company has on correcting this--even at the expense of other, more urgent issues. These are the ultimate nitpicks.

Some of the worst reports are the ones that are not even real bugs, it's just the tester has tried to make the product do something beyond its capabilities, or decided they don't like an aspect of the system and want it redesigned. An engineer can spend hours, days, or even months resolving these issues.

The most irritating are the ones that duplicate an already found bug. It's a waste of both the tester's and engineer's time. It's usually due to the tester not using the latest version of the product, or not reading previous reports.

Now consider the emails Mr. DenBeste gets and his reactions to them. First, remember that instead of a highly trained testing specialist, he gets his "bug reports" from anyone who has access to email.

The good ones point out something he missed. He publishes an update, maybe a link, or occasionally a whole new article exploring the point.

The trivial ones seem to tick him off--and I'm not about to be outraged at that response. Even if he ignores them, he has to wonder if he didn't communicate something correctly.

The duplicates are maddening. If it were me, after seeing the same subject brought up for the 100th time, I might be peeved.

It's interesting to see the response to the ones that suggest widely differing points of view. Depending on the subject, he may ignore or attack them, but sometimes it takes him off on a different tack--usually interesting.

Just a thought and not meant to be an psychoanalysis.

Posted by: Catch22 at May 6, 2004 07:50 PM Permalink


Speaking of picking apart details, you misspelled "spurious".

Posted by: John S. at May 6, 2004 08:10 PM Permalink

"He's read little history, knows little science outside his professional experience, cannot understand people and their motivations, and has a very undeveloped moral sense."

Wow. Are we talking about the same Steven Den Beste? You know, the prolific one with the blog covering many aspects of history, science, and people's motivation? Maybe dnadan56 has been reading this other page by a guy named Steven Den Beste, you know, the one with nothing on it.

Posted by: Sarah at May 7, 2004 04:11 PM Permalink


HAHAHAHAHAHA. This other page by Stephen Den Beste. Funny.

Posted by: Scott Harris at May 7, 2004 06:49 PM Permalink

May 07, 2004

Detail thinkers, Holistic thinkers - Part 3

Steven Den Beste responds to my response. He says:

It is certainly true that I have always had a much easier time learning things which "fit" than things which did not. Which is why I was hopeless at trying to learn a foreign language: trying to memorize arbitrary lists of words doesn't work. On the other hand, it happens to be the case that some of my mental models are huge and intricate, so a lot more "fits" than might at first be expected, which may be why some have occasionally accused me of knowing everything. (A foul canard, I tell you. Utter slander.)

Detail thinkers are usually very good at absorbing large quantities of data (such as is required in learning a foreign language) – they don’t have to waste energy processing the data, and they don’t have to successfully fit the data into a model in order to retain it. This is a very handy talent to have, and well suited to most of the important tasks in life.

For the same reason, holistic thinkers are usually very poor at absorbing large quantities of data. But as Steven points out, the advantage of holistic thinkers is that they can manipulate their internal models to see things not otherwise obvious. However, there is another advantage, which Steven describes but doesn’t explain by pointing out that a lot of data can fit into his mental models – these models are extremely stable. Each fact buttresses each other fact, creating a highly redundant structure well suited to withstanding the ravishes of time. Holistic thinkers usually remember their structures “forever”, along with the information embedded within them. In contrast, the non-embedded information of the detail thinker, and even the detail thinker’s direct relationships between facts, form a far less stable structure, and are easily forgotten.

So, though poor at absorbing data compared to detail thinkers, after a lifetime of so doing, holistic thinkers can build up an enormous storehouse of it. This is why Steven Den Beste has been accused of knowing everything.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:16 AM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Detail thinkers, Holistic thinkers - Part 4

It has been bothering me that I haven’t related to Steven Den Beste’s central point that getting nitpicking emails frustrates him. (I do have something to say about that, and I might in a future post, but a the moment I have no time.) The reason for that is, despite what I said, and despite the actual post that I linked to, what I really had in mind (I just realized this now) and wanted to talk about was Steven’s Chinese Water Torture post. In that post he describes his reaction to the sheer quantity of email – not to nitpicking emails in particular. He says:

Almost all of these letters were friendly and helpful. But the cumulative effect of them is like a piledriver, especially when I'm not 100%. A friendly slap on the back can be bracing and supportive, but a thousand slaps on the back will probably kill you, and certainly leave you black-and-blue. None of these people know each other; none of them knew what anyone else might have been writing to me. But I receive them all.

This strikes me as the reaction of a man who wants to relate to each email holistically – the way he would like others to relate to his posts – the only really meaningful way to relate to them, as he sees it. But, as I have said, this is a relatively slow process, impossible to apply quickly to large quantities of data. The knowledge that most of it will turn out to be holistically irrelevant must be particularly galling.

Perhaps it will be of some comfort that hardly anyone expects him to relate to his email holistically.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:49 AM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Detail thinkers, Holistic thinkers - Part 5

Steven Den Beste’s post about my post has turned up a menagerie of self-described holistic thinkers. Of course, I am one too.

However, I am also a stickler for detail when it comes to my utterances and writings. I don’t think that I’d have quite same reaction as Steven to corrections of factual errors in my posts – however peripheral to the point I’m trying to make. Brian Tiemann comes close to describing my reaction. I, however, wouldn’t assume that my reader is specifically trying to help me, as does Brian. Rather, I’d assume that he or she wants to share with me some information that I might want to know – that, in fact, I do want to know. If I were in Steven’s place, I would correct the error immediately, in-line, [perhaps using square brackets] so that no reader would be mislead into thinking an untruth, or worse, into thinking that this particular untruth is untrue in a way that impacts my thinking as a whole.

I have long felt that email, and now to an even greater degree blogs, are an answer to a problem that I’ve long had – the problem, I think, that really bothers Steven – of trying to make a point in a discussion only to have my interlocutor latch on to a peripheral point and try to make a point of his own. I have nothing against another person doing this, except that it invariably prevents me from making my own point. Using email, and now blogs, we can do both at once.

However, there is another potential problem when this happens – that my interlocutor is uninterested in taking the time to understand my point, in other words that I’ve failed to communicate. And communication is one of man’s primal desires.

As Steven says:

I won't reach every reader no matter how hard I try. I don't even expect to reach the majority. But if nearly all the mail I get about a specific post is pedantic, then it suggests that I didn't reach hardly anyone. If that goes on and on, post after post, it makes me feel as if I'm not succeeding overall in what I'm trying to do when I write for this site.

That's what gets me down. Perhaps it meant that the forests I've been describing weren't really very important, or weren't there are all. Perhaps I failed to write well enough about them to make them real for my readers, and all they could see was trees. If nearly all the comments I receive about some article are nitpicks, it means that article failed. If that goes on day after day, post after post, then I'm failing as a writer.

In a nutshell, I think, Steven is describing his distress over the possibility that he is failing to communicate.

Steven: you are not failing. Don’t forget the silent majority of your devoted fans.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:59 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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I had some gripes with Den Beste for a while, his DWL! admonitions started to get a little caustic. But I got over it, mostly I realized that a) he's not a professional writer, never studied to be a professional writer, and perhaps the celebrity (and what that entails) was overwhelming him some, and b) that overwhelming correspondence comes more from critics than from those in agreement, or even those who are inquisitive.

Well, I've learned to ignore his DWL's, hopefully he has learned to ignore some of the more pedantic emails he gets, and not let them bother his conscious. Those DWL tags are showing up less and less lately so maybe he has, and maybe his readership is a little better educated as to what criticisms are worth making, and how to make them as well.

Win Win

Posted by: Timbeaux at May 7, 2004 04:16 PM Permalink

May 10, 2004

The most important thing about Abu Ghraib

I have seen a lot written about Abu Ghraib, but haven't seen the most important thing about it said simply and clearly, so I will do it.

The most important thing about Abu Ghraib is not the relative seriousness of what happened there, but that the US considers its perpetrators criminals. Every society has its criminals, their presence doesn't indict the society as a whole if - and this is a big if - they are treated as criminals.

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May 11, 2004

The World's Major Languages

What I miss most, living in Israel, is easy access to English-language books. There are no large English-language bookstores, as far as I know. And while I’m a big fan of Amazon, I can’t replicate the experience of bookstore browsing on their site (though in other ways it’s better than a bricks-and-mortar bookstore). Moreover, when I do order from Amazon, the extra shipping and taxes raise the price considerably.

My in-laws have been visiting for the past week or so (which is why my posting output has declined so precipitously – though I did make time to respond to my denbestelanche) and I took the opportunity to order a number of books from Amazon to be sent domestically to my guests before their visit. On the advice of Amritas, I ordered The World's Major Languages, by Bernard Comrie. It consists of short descriptions of some 50 languages. I haven’t had much time to enjoy it yet, but I did read the entry on Hebrew.

My interest in linguistics is part of a larger interest in systems. I love systems in general, and languages are systems for expressing things that people want to say. My interest in language is largely a curiosity about the different ways such systems can be, and have been, constructed.

Each essay is short, so the author has to pick and choose which features of the language to present. By far, the most interesting aspect of Hebrew, in my opinion, is its root-and-pattern morphology, which was presented in the introduction to Semitic languages as a whole. However, even there I don’t think that the author did a very good job of getting it across, part of the problem being that he felt compelled (I suppose) to use data from many Semitic languages, which obscured the nature of the system. I hope to present my own comprehensive summary in a future post.

One of the things that I look for are elegant solutions to linguistic issues – the Semitic root-and-pattern morphology being one of them. The meaning of elegant, as I am using it (and as mathematicians and engineers use it) is hard to explain, but it is something like, “a simple solution to a complex problem”.

An example that I happened across is the Hungarian local case system. It has a neat arrangement of suffixes.

  Stationary Approach Depart
Interior -ben (in) -be (into) -bol (out of)
Surface -n (on) -re (on to) -rol (from on)
Proximity -nel (near) -hoz (to near) -tol (from near)

The translations in parenthesis don’t appear in the text – they are my guesses as to the meaning based on the examples given.

Watch this space for more.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 04:09 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Zoroastrian community

I have just stumbled across an article about the Zoroastrian community – which the author compares to the Jewish community. There are many similarities: an ethno-religious community with a large diaspora, which has had a disproportionate influence on the world:

“In numbers, Parsis [Indian Zoroastrians] are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare” – Mahatma Gandhi.

As a community, Zoroastrians face the same existential challenge as the Jews: assimilation and low birth rate – but even worse. According to this document, there are less than 200,000 Zoroastrians in the world. I don’t believe that the Jews will become extinct, partly because of the existence of Israel, and partly because a core group of Jews have developed institutions which will preserve them. I don’t know if this is true of Zoroastrians. I would hate to see them disappear.

You can find a lot of interesting Zoroastrian links on this page (intended for Zoroastrians, which makes it more interesting), including this page on the Gujarati script for Avestan prayers, and this page comparing Gujarati script to other Indian scripts.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 05:21 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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May 12, 2004

Hebrew Morphology

Over the years I have read descriptions of many languages, and seen many weird and wonderful things. But nothing I’ve seen comes close to Semitic morphology – it reminds me of nothing more than a multiplication table, with roots along one axis and patterns along the other. Each one has a meaning: combine the two and you get a word. It seems like an impossibly elegant system for creating words; I can’t imagine how it could have evolved. No wonder the speakers of Hebrew and Arabic (both Semitic languages) consider their languages divine. I will speak specifically about Hebrew, but the concepts apply to all Semitic languages (though the specific roots and patterns may be different).

A Hebrew root consists of three consonants. It is not a morpheme in the sense that by itself it has a meaning – that’s why when I give the meaning of a Hebrew root I say “basic meaning”. This is my generalized sense of the unifying concept of all words that have that root. It only takes on a meaning when combined with a pattern. For example, consider the root q-l-t; it appears in the following words:

qalat – to take in
niqlat – to become acclimatized
hiqlit – to record

haqlata – recording
maqlet – receiver
miqlat – refuge
qaletet – cassette
qelet – input
taqlit – record

Notice that they all have the letters q, l, and t, inserted into different patterns of other letters. Notice also that these words all have something to do with “taking in” or “being taken in”. Now consider the following:

ma`der – hoe
mafret – plectrum (pick)
magber – amplifier
maqlet – receiver
mahshev – computer
maqrer – refrigerator
masreq – comb
matleh – rack
mavreg – screwdriver
mazleg – fork
mazreq – syringe

Notice that they all have the following pattern maXXeX, where the Xs stand for root letters. Notice also that they are all tools – this pattern is a pattern for tools. Can you guess the roots of each word?

Patterns have meanings for nouns, verbs and adjectives. For example, the pattern XaXiX corresponds to English words that end in –able. The meanings of the seven verb paradigms are as follows:

pa`al – simple, either transitive or intransitive
nif`al – the passive of pa`al, sometimes active, but always intransitive
pi`el – always transitive
pu`al – the passive of pi`el
hif`il – causative, always transitive
huf`al – the passive of hif`il
hitpa`el – reflexive, sometimes repetitive, always intransitive

Each verb paradigm consists of a rather large collection of patterns, each with a specific function. For example, the following is the paradigm for lamad – to learn, from the pa`al paradigm:

Past Tense singular plural
1st person lamadti lamadnu
2nd person masculine lamadta l'madtem
2nd person feminine lamad't l'madten
3rd person masculine lamad lamdu
3rd person feminine lamda lamdu

Future Tense

singular plural
1st person elmad nilmad
2nd person masculine tilmad tilm'du
2nd person feminine tilm'di tilm'du
3rd person masculine yilmad yilm'du
3rd person feminine tilmad yilm'du

Present Participle singular plural
male lomed lomdim
female lomedet lomdot

Command singular plural
male l'mad limdu
female limdi limdu

infinitive lilmod
verbal noun l'mida

This system is productive – new words are created all the time using it; in fact you may notice that many of my examples are modern words. When I started learning Hebrew, I had a hard time believing that people could use it on an ad hoc basis, the way an English speaker can add –ize or –tion to a word as needed, which would be understood by all parties. But in time, I internalized the system, and am now productive in it. It’s amazing what the human mind can do.

UPDATE: The word for “software” in Hebrew is “tokhna”. On that basis a new pattern has been created for "–ware". It has produced:

homra – hardware (root: h-m-r – matter)
qoshha – firmware (root: q-sh-h – firm)
lomda – educational software (root: l-m-d – learning)
gonva – pirated software (root: g-n-v – stealing)

If I were to invent the word olna (root: '-l-n – tree) I bet it would be understood the way I intended!

UPDATE: More here.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:07 AM  Permalink | Comments (3)
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Wow, someone else who's interested in theorizing about language systems! It's a good thing you blogged about Den Beste or I might never have found you.

I would guess that the way the Semitic system arose originally was by analogy, after some initial pattern had developed in a few words. For example, in English we have the pair fall/fell, with the second one being a causative of the first. "Fell" in this sense was originally "fall" with a suffix, which affected the vowel of the stem. This vowel change remains the only evidence of the original suffix, after the suffix disappeared. One could imagine that this could have become a productive pattern in some alternative history of English, with pairs like call/ckell (cause to call), stall/stell (cause to stall), etc. Eventually this could be generalized quite broadly, and new patterns may be more likely to emerge once the basic idea of a consonantal root had become firmly planted in the language (such as the patterns which emerged in Hebrew in the late Biblical and Rabbinical period). I think I remember reading somewhere that there is some evidence that Afro-Asiatic languages (among them Semitic) originally had biconsonantal roots, which Semitic then developed into triconsonantal ones.

Now, how did the Semitic languages first develop the gutteral and emphatic consonants? :-)

Posted by: Adam at May 13, 2004 04:32 AM Permalink

The triconsonantal morphology of Hebrew and Arabic is descended from an earlier biconsonantal system. This is still seen in most of the other Semitic languages like Chadic. What happened was that certain prefixes became highly grammaticalized and ended up creating a 3-radical system. Most Hebrew and Arabic basic, primitive nouns are still biconsonantal. Eventually the old 2-radical system was replaced with a 3-radical one that became productive through analogy. This kind of templatic morphology is found in other languages families, although Semitic has the most productive system. But several Native American languages and Philipino languages are templatic.

Posted by: william t drewery at August 28, 2004 07:11 AM Permalink

As for the emphatics, it's not clear what their ultimate origins are but most linguist believe they are leftovers of an ejective series like those of the Caucasian language. In time, the ejectives became pharyngealized. I'm not sure where @ayn comes from, though.

Posted by: william t drewery at August 28, 2004 07:19 AM Permalink

Hannibal / Haniba`al

I have been looking for information about the origin of the Semitic root-and-pattern system without much luck so far. I hope to share my findings with you in a future post. In the meantime, I did find this nice chart of the Semitic family tree. You can see how closely related Hebrew is to Phoenician – they are practically the same language, both being practically the same as Canaanite, their immediate ancestor. I vividly recall when the movie Hannibal reached Israel – I saw posters for it all over. Hannibal in Hebrew (which I assume is the same as the original Punic, a dialect of Phoenician) is Haniba`al – Spear of the Master – a very evocative name, given the accompanying picture. Ba`al (the Master) was one of the Canaanite (and I presume Punic) gods. The Canaanites, and the Carthaginians, practiced child sacrifice (among other horrors) as part of their religious worship.

While we’re on the subject, The World’s Major Languages has the Punic name for Carthage (the real Hannibal’s city): Qart Hadasht. In Hebrew this would be Qiryah Hadashah (final t > h, but is still seen in construct form such as Qiryat Gat). Qiryah is “city”, hadashah is “new” so Qart Hadasht means New City. A large number of Israeli cities have the word Qiryah in them. In addition to Qiryat Gat, we have Qiryat Ono, Qiryat Sefer, Qiryat Malakhi, and many more.

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I had always thought that "Hanniba`al" was "Baal is gracious", parallel to the Hebrew names "Hananya" or "Hananel". Do you have any evidence one way or the other that it might be "spear" rather than "gracious"? Unfortunately, a native speaker isn't available, but I wonder if modern Maltese would be able to shed any light on the matter.

Posted by: Adam at May 13, 2004 02:29 AM Permalink

Adam, thank you for your comments. You're likely right about Hannibal. Hen is "grace", hanina is "mercy". Spear is hanit. I probably latched on to hanit rather than hen or hanina because of the context in which I saw the word.

(I’m using italics instead of underline because for some reason Movable Type is stripping out the underline markup.)

Adam, are you a professional like Amritas or an amateur like me?

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 13, 2004 09:36 AM Permalink

No, I'm an amateur like you, and also a fellow inhabitant of Israel.

Posted by: Adam at May 14, 2004 06:46 AM Permalink

In the word hanit, there is no dagesh in the nun (so there's only one nun in the root, Isaiah 2:4). The root for grace/mercy/clemency is h.n.n., as in hanina and hanun. Judging by the English spelling (probably derived from the Latin spelling, etc.) I would guess that the n in Hannibal was doubled in Phoenician/Punic, thus suggesting that the root is indeed h.n.n. and not h.n.t/y. I don't remember where I first read that Hannibal is "Baal is gracious" or otherwise got the idea, but that's what I've thought. A Google search for "hannibal baal" turns up the possibilities of "joy of Baal", "favorite of Baal", or "grace of Baal".

Sorry for the nitpicking, I guess I got carried away. Hope you're not too "holistic" in your thinking. ;-)

Posted by: Adam at May 14, 2004 07:06 AM Permalink

May 13, 2004

Chomsky's linguistic theories

Steven Den Beste links to Amritas with a long post on Chomsky's linguistic theories and language in general. He proposes the following test of Chomsky’s theories:

Several supporters of Chomsky's theory (perhaps even including Chomsky himself, if he were willing to participate) would be given texts in several languages and would independently analyze them to derive the deep structure behind them. Their analyses would then be compared. If their analyses closely agreed, it would strongly support the validity of their theory. If they didn't agree at all, it would mean they were living in an intellectual home made of smoke and mirrors.

I have no doubt that Chomsky's theories would pass this test. The reason for this is that, as I understand it, Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is not really a grammar at all, but a meta-grammar – a grammar for describing grammars. It is akin to BNF, as Steven describes it:

We programmers have precise meta-language conventions for description of grammars, and one of the most common is called Backus-Naur Form, or BNF. BNF itself is thus a grammar, in a sense, but it is a very limited one which is entirely descriptive. BNF contains exactly one verb: "Is defined as" (which in BNF is spelled ::=).

The question therefore, as I understand it, is not to ask “is it true”, but to ask, “can it really describe all grammars?” If the answer is yes (actually the answer needs only to be: yes under such-and-such conditions) then we can ask, “How is it useful?” This is not a question that needs to be answered unequivocally; after all “useful” is not a well-defined term itself. If linguists use it, then it can be said to be useful.

This is also the reason that Chomskianism seems so much like a religion. Outside of linguistics you often find the same phenomenon: Java programmers vs. C programmers vs. BASIC programmers, Mac users vs. Linux users vs. Windows users. Or even: motorcycle riders vs. car drivers. Human beings are by nature tool-using animals, and the tools we use to interact with the world become integral to our perception of it. And “our perception of the world” is as good a definition of religion as any.

The real question is: is it worth the money that has been poured into it? I don’t see endless work being done on new forms of BNF. Granted, human languages are much more complex, but I think that after a while we reach a point of diminishing returns. Perhaps the efforts of linguists might be better applied elsewhere.

UPDATE: The real problem is that Chomsky’s followers don’t want Universal Grammar to be merely useful; they want it to be the truth.

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Language is a tool

In my last post I stated without elaboration that language is a tool. In my opinion, this is a very deep and meaningful statement, because I think that language is a tool much like any other tool human beings use. Proficiency with language is acquired the same way that proficiency with all tools is acquired. For example, when I ride a bicycle, I don't think about it at all – I only think about where I want to go, and somehow I go there. The mechanics of riding a bicycle are very complex, but somehow we learn them without knowing what, exactly, they are. The same goes for language.

Let's take another example: musical instruments. I play (not very well) guitar, harmonica, and piano. I can also whistle and sing. I can produce the same melody by any of these methods, but the physical motions that each one involves are radically different. However, anyone who can carry a tune can learn to play an instrument, because we humans have a built-in ability to use tools. Singing means that you can use your voice to reproduce the tune in your head. When you play an instrument, you do the same thing, but with a different tool. All you have to do is learn a different set of musical transformations to go from the tune in your head to the instrument you play, instead of your voice.

One more example: mathematics. Mathematical symbols are a tool that we use to express mathematical thoughts. The key reason why most people feel that math is a foreign language to them is that, well, it is. Most people never manage to internalize mathematical symbols to the extent that they become an intuitive language. They may know what the different symbols mean, but when they see a mathematical expression they have to figure it out, the way you would figure out an expression in a foreign language. In order to be able to use math productively, you have to become fluent in the language, i.e. to use its symbols intuitively to express what you really want to say, without thinking about the symbols themselves.

And this brings me to the nature of thought. There are two kinds of thought – rational thought, and what I'll call, for lack of a better term, intuitive thought. Rational thought is the kind of thought that we're consciously aware of, but intuitive thought is much more powerful. This is the kind of thought that we use to produce well-formed speech, to ride a bicycle, and to play an instrument – without necessarily knowing how we do it. The goal of all learning should be to make knowledge intuitive, for once we do that, we have acquired a new tool that our rational thought processes can apply to higher levels of thought.

UPDATE: Oops. I thought I said language is a tool. I guess I thought it, but didn’t say it.

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Nouns, verbs and adjectives

I am going to quibble with Steven Den Beste. (Steven, I don’t want to nitpick, my substantial response is two posts down – I want to make what I think is an interesting point of my own.)

Steven says:

Thus there are essential characteristics of the universe itself which are reflected in language. That's why I suspect that every human language contains nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Actually, adjectives are not necessary. Even in English we can say things like “red of cheek”, where “red” looks like a noun. In Hebrew, there are several verbs which express things that English expresses through adjectives: samahti (I was happy), esmah (I will be happy). In the present tense you can’t tell whether the word is an adjective or a verb: ani sameah (I am happy – in English you can tell it’s not a verb only because it would have to end in –ing). One can imagine a language where all adjectives are expressed as either nouns or verbs. According to The World’s Major languages, Tamil is one such language, having only nouns and verbs. (It is also true of many computer languages, as I point out in Objects and Services - Nouns and Verbs)

Adverbs though, as Steven said, are certainly not necessary. In Hebrew, one of the most common ways to express them is “with” + <noun>: higi`u b’hadraga – they arrived gradually, literally: they arrived with gradualness.

Grammatical categories such as noun, verb and adjective are not “essential characteristics of the universe” – they are essential characteristics of a particular language – the way a particular language models the universe.

However, I believe (in contrast to some) that there are “essential characteristics of the universe”, and the distinction between nouns and verbs might be one of them. I cannot imagine a language without this distinction, and I have tried. (If any reader can imagine one: I’d be grateful if you would tell me about it.)

UPDATE: Amritas says almost the same thing. It’s good to get confirmation from a linguist!

UPDATE: I can imagine a language with just nouns, no adjectives, and one verb: do. Then it would be like REST.

UPDATE: In Hausa, constructs like “red of cheek” are the regular way of expressing adjectives: fari-n zanee (white cloth), compare to kaaka-n yaaroo (grandfather of boy).

UPDATE: I just realized that all Hebrew verbs in the present tense behave exactly like adjectives. And like all Hebrew adjectives, they can be used as nouns. So is a Hebrew present participle a verb, adjective or noun? For example:

`oved `oved `oved – a working worker (male) works
`ovedet `ovedet `ovedet – a working worker (female) works
`ovdim `ovdim `ovdim – working workers (male) work
`ovdot `ovdot `ovdot – working workers (female) work
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The constructed language Lojban explicitly fuses nouns, verbs and adjectives, having just one category, the "predicate". It is an interesting grammatical experiment, though I think that most likely there is a noun/verb distinction inherent in human cognitive processes, whether or not any such distinction is inherent in the world itself.

I believe that the adjective-verb correspondence used to be even more developed in Hebrew than it is now. For example, I think that "tov" used to be a verb in every sense, prefix-conjugation ("future") "yitav", suffix-conjugation "tov" (probably "tovti", "tovta", etc.) Ma tovu ohalekha, Ya`akov....

Posted by: Adam at May 14, 2004 08:06 AM Permalink

May 16, 2004


Reader Adam introduced me to Logjam – er, Lojban, an artificially constructed language, like Esperanto. However, according to the Logical Language Group, its purpose is not to be an international language:

Lojban was not designed primarily to be an international language, however, but rather as a linguistic tool for studying and understanding language. Its linguistic and computer applications make Lojban unique among proposed international languages: Lojban can be successful without immediately being accepted and adopted everywhere, and Lojban can be useful and interesting even to those skeptical of or hostile towards the international language movement.

Its claim to not distinguish between nouns, verbs, and adjectives seems to be belied by this question and answer:

What is the standard word order of Lojban?
Lojban is only secondarily a 'word order' language at all. Primarily, it is a particle language. Using a standard word order allows many of the particles to be 'elided' (dropped) in common cases. However, even the standard unmarked word order is by no means fixed; the principal requirement is that at least one argument precede the predicate, but it is perfectly all right for all of the arguments to do so, leading to an SOV word order rather than the currently canonical SVO (subject–verb–object): the two orders are equally unmarked syntactically. VSO order is expressible using only one extra particle. In two-argument predicates, OSV, OVS, and VOS are also possible with only one particle, and various even more scrambled orders (when more than two-place predicates are involved) can also be achieved.
True, Lojban is “built up from a list of around 1350 root words (gismu)” which can be nouns, verbs or adjectives – but Indo-European and Semitic roots also work this way. However, I do give the language’s inventors credit for creating a language that is totally un-Indo-European in structure – and perhaps un-human as well. Take a look at this sentence:

le prenu cu klama le zdani le briju le zarci le karce

The person goes to the house from the office via the market using the car.

The definition of the brivla [“verb” - DB] used above, klama, shows this relationship. There are five places labelled x1 through x5. The brivla itself describes how the five places are related, but does not include values for those places. In this example, those places are filled in with five specific sumti [“noun” – DB] values:

· x1 contains le prenu (the person)

· x2 contains le zdani (the house)

· x3 contains le briju (the office)

· x4 contains le zarci (the market)

· x5 contains le karce (the car)

I don’t think that any natural language requires its speakers to count to more than 2, certainly not to 5! True, these places may be optionally marked by prepositions: fa, fe, fi, fo, fu – but this syntax seems inspired by mathematical or computer notation in which counting argument places is the norm, for example:

f (x1, x2, x3, x4, x5)

is a function with five arguments. In most programming languages this would look something like:

cu-klama (le-prenu, le-zdani, le-briju, le-zarci, le-karce)

If, on the other hand, the prepositions were mandatory, it would look like – a URL!


Posted by David Boxenhorn at 03:23 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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Given the example sentence above, you could consider a brivla a verb and a sumti a noun, but all Lojban sentences have the same structure. For example, it's easy to consider "klama" a verb is the sentence le prenu cu klama le zarci (the person goes to the store), but what is "patfu" in the sentence le prenu cu patfu mi (The person is my father), and what is "clamau" in le prenu cu clamau mi (The person is taller than me)? In English, you have a verb, a noun, and an adjective, each dictating a different structure for the sentence, but in Lojban there is only one structure for all three: argument1 cu predicate argument2.

Lojban syntax definitely is inspired by mathematical notation; it is inspired by formal logic. (Lojban means "logical language" in Lojban.)

The large number of arguments that a word like klama can have is certainly un-Indo-European, but I think that that in particular is secondary to what makes Lojban interesting, and ultimately just obscures the interesting parts. Human languages can easily deal with three arguments ("He gave me the ball."), and I think that basically Lojban predicates could have been confined to three arguments, if that had been a design consideration. You can see my rant on the subject on the Lojban wiki at here, though it contains a lot of Lojban-specific jargon.

Posted by: Adam at May 17, 2004 05:58 AM Permalink

Thanks, Adam. I just read your comments on the Lojban wiki (and quickly realized that fully understanding them would require more time than I have…). I like having a Lojban expert among my readers!

You’re right – I should have said “counting to 4” in my post, as there are only 4 arguments after the predicate. I suppose that humans could easily deal with up to 4 arguments without having to count to more than 2 by making the standard sentence structure x1 x2 cu predicate x3 x4. This would correspond to an SOV word order, with up to two indirect objects after the verb. (I think, though, that I would prefer just making prepositions mandatory for arguments after x2.)

My point about nouns and verbs was that Lojban sentence structure distinguishes between arguments and predicates, and I don’t see any difference between that and distinguishing between nouns and verbs. The fact that the same word can be used for both an argument and a predicate is not unusual, we do it even in English!

In contrast, there really is no special grammatical category like adjective. If I understand correctly, Lojban adjectives are exactly like verbs (predicates).

Another way of looking at Lojban would be to say that it has one verb: cu. This would correspond to REST, as I said in an earlier post.

How would you say: My father is tall?

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 17, 2004 11:17 AM Permalink

Evil for a good cause

Scott says:

It seems like you are saying that something like Nazism is inherently evil but that something like Communism, while evil, has some "good" points worthy of distinguishing it from Nazism. I tried to point out that Nazism had many, if not most, of the same "good" points…

If you want to try to come up with different examples for your points, feel free, but as they stand, the examples you provide are distinctions without a difference.

I will try to come at this from a different angle, and perhaps my original examples will become clear. Some time ago I read Fear No Evil, by Nathan Sharansky. A great book, one of the most inspiring that I’ve read in my life. It describes how Sharansky was imprisoned by the USSR on false charges, when his real crime was nothing more than a desire to emigrate. Though he was tortured by the Soviets, and the evil of the system is more than clear, I was struck by the how successful Sharansky was at manipulating it, and by the fact that he did survive until his eventual release. He was able to do this because the system was fundamentally hypocritical – at the same time that it was practicing evil, it was preaching good. In an unhypocritically evil system, like Nazi Germany, he would have just been killed – without the need to make excuses.

Eventually the Soviet system imploded under the weight of its own hypocrisy – with a little help from Ronald Reagan and the United States – in a way it was a victory of the Soviet Union too.

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I haven't read the book so I can't comment on it directly. But let's not forget, Hitler was responsible for probably around 12 million civilian murders, while Stalin alone (ignoring other Soviet leaders) was responsible for at least TWICE as many. Communism preached good all along, and had many people ("useful idiots" as Lenin referred to them) covering for all the misdeeds. Look at Walter Duranty reporting for the NY Times in the 1930's that there was no famine and no one was dying.

Hitler even learned from Stalin's example (and not the other way around) that he could get away with mass murder and the rest of the world would look away.

The only difference is that by the 1970's the Soviet Union was mostly, but not entirely a spent force. Reagan knew it, but most other people didn't.

It's very like that had Nazism survived until then too, its own ferocity would have slowly withered just like in the Soviet Union, as people wearied of the poverty and mind-numbing nature of the regime.

Posted by: Scott at May 18, 2004 10:35 PM Permalink

I think a case can be made that evil for a good cause is worse than evil intent. My distinction comes from trying to understand the human dynamics; not from trying to say one kind is better or worse.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 19, 2004 11:17 AM Permalink

May 17, 2004

Related Roots

Amritas talks about the hypercorrect (that is to say, incorrect) transcription of nakbah as naqbah. I was once informed by a woman whom I had momentarily found attractive that Munich was not pronounced the way I had pronounced it (myoonik) but “moonkhen”. I pointed out that I was using the usual English pronunciation, and that if she wanted to use the German she would have to also pronounce the umlaut over the U. More irritating, to me, are the multitudes that correct my pronunciation of Taoism. They want me to say “Daoism” when the Chinese pronunciation, as I understand it, starts with an unvoiced, unaspirated consonant – in other words, something between an English T (unvoiced, aspirated) and D (voiced, unaspirated). I’m sure; even then, that this would not be exactly as the Chinese pronounce it – as if a billion Chinese all pronounce it exactly the same way.

However, in this case, Amritas’s guess (“is this a derivative of naqaba 'he drilled'?”) is not necessarily incorrect. Semitic roots are morphological, not necessarily historical. Many Semitic roots seem to be derived by changing a letter of another root. The most famous such roots in Hebrew are p-r-X:

p-r-‘ – wild
p-r-d – separate
p-r-h – fruitful
p-r-z – exaggerate
p-r-h – flower
p-r-t – item
p-r-k – crumble
p-r-s – slice
p-r-` – plunder
p-r-s – break out
p-r-q – take apart
p-r-r – crumb
p-r-sh – separate, explain

All these roots have something to do with making many from one. We can also take one of these roots and start changing the middle letter:

p-r-` – plunder
p-q-` – split
p-g-` – wound
p-s-` – harm
p-sh-` – crime
p-t-` – surprise

Or change the first letter:

p-r-q – take apart
b-r-q – lightning
z-r-q – throw
h-r-q – insect
m-r-q – soup
s-r-q – comb
`-r-q – run away
sh-r-q – whistle

This phenomenon is the basis of the hypothesis that Hebrew once had two letter roots, three letter roots being a later development. I don’t take this seriously because it would give a theoretical maximum of only 484 roots – not nearly enough. Much more plausible, in my opinion, is that they come from changing a letter of an existing three-letter root. (Though sometimes this phenomenon can be shown to come through borrowing a cognate from another Semitic language.)

This particular case reminds me of Hebrew nashaq – bite, and nashakh – kiss. Since the root n-q-b appears in Hebrew, but not n-k-b, I would guess the latter is derived from the former.

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Peaks and Valleys

I want to talk about the most important misunderstanding most people have: Most people think that happiness is a peak experience. A peak experience, as I mean it, is an experience that gives rise to strong emotions, whether positive or negative – the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, danger, falling in love, etc. People who are not happy (this, I think, includes most westerners) assume that happiness should be the ultimate peak experience. Many of them feel this way because they find their lives boring, which seems like the opposite of a peak experience. The impression is reinforced by the media, which has trouble depicting happiness, but no trouble depicting peak experiences. (Indeed, a characteristic of the evolution of the media, even during my own lifetime, is an increasing emphasis on increasingly extreme peak experiences.)

Happiness, however, is a valley experience. It is not a feeling of euphoria, but more like a feeling of peace. In fact, I might characterize it even more mundanely as a feeling of at-home-ness. To one who has never experienced it, it sounds like happiness is demotivating, but the opposite is true. It is a kind of flavor-enhancer to life. It enables you to feel peak experiences all the more. Unhappy people often seek out increasingly extreme peak experiences – because they can’t fully feel their peaks (this, I believe, is origin of bizarre sex practices, for instance), and don’t really enjoy their experiences.

The way to achieve happiness is to feel with certainty that your life has meaning. In our tribal past this was easy – your life was dedicated to the tribe, and this gave meaning to your life. In the modern world, you have to work harder. For some people, their family is enough – a kind of minimalist tribe. Others dedicate their lives to their country, or a good cause, or their job. All of these are worth something. Probably the more causes you have, the happier you will be – as long as they’re not cosmetic, i.e. they really are meaningful to you. However, in my opinion, while all well and good, these causes are but stepping-stones to the ultimate cause, and the source of meaning.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 04:31 PM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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I think you've overlooked something in your ideas on human happiness, focussing on what may be common to all people in terms of the spiritual wellbeing to be gained in belonging to something greater than oneself. Individual personality must be reckoned with as well: if you don't come to know your own exhilarating strengths, you will continually feel half-asleep, or worse. I have for years been steering away from fields like "interior decorator" because it doesn't jive with my value on doing something of spiritual significance, or at least of strong contribution to society. (The two are very close in my book.) There's a real snobbery issue here. The Ba'al Shem Tov says that when one is working at an occupation that G-d intended him for, in his uniqueness, then he is happy.

Posted by: admirer at May 21, 2004 06:11 AM Permalink

May 19, 2004

A lower rate of speed

There are only so many hours in the day. Between sleep, starting up a software business, and my wife and family, I can easily fill that time. I never really did have time for blogging – most of that time has come at the expense of sleep. But I find that without enough sleep my performance degrades rapidly. When fully refreshed I can sometimes hit a sweet spot, where I can accomplish remarkable things that at other times are beyond my capabilities.

I’m afraid that I’ll have to cut down on blogging – my health and the demands of my life and work require it. But I do intend to keep posting, just at a lower rate of speed. So stay tuned.

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The importance of Enthusiasm

I sold my company, Cleyal (the link is taken from the Internet Archive wayback machine), to Sapiens in 1998, after running it (with two partners) for seven years. In the years since then, I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate my sins – and also the things I did right.

One of the things I did right, which I wasn’t consciously aware of at the time, but which I intend to make official policy in my next start-up, was an emphasis on enthusiasm. In my opinion the most important things determining an employee’s productivity are:

1. Enthusiasm
2. Ability
3. Experience

In that order. Enthusiasm will carry you far, even if you are somewhat lacking in ability or experience. On the other hand, an employee without enthusiasm can be worse than useless, no matter ability and experience.

One of the side effects of recognizing the importance of enthusiasm is that it makes it very easy to fire people. I had to fire quite a few people over the course of seven years, and was able to remain friends with almost all of them. With one exception, all I needed to do was say, “it looks like you're not enjoying your job.” We would then seriously try to find a way to fix the problem. Usually it wouldn’t work out, and we’d both agree that it was in everyone’s best interest for the employee to work elsewhere.

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David, nudge, nudge, wink, wink :), I'm actually more interested in what you consider the things you did wrong. Seriously. We often learn more from our mistakes then our successes.

Posted by: Scott at May 19, 2004 03:22 PM Permalink

Democracy, the 2nd best form of decision making

Don Boudreaux talks about democracy. He says:

Democracy is poorly understood and vastly overrated. Americans knee-jerkily think of it as being synonymous with freedom, or at least as a damn reliable guarantor of freedom. It is neither.

I can agree with that. Most of the times that democracy has been tried it has resulted in… dictatorship, Nazi Germany being one outstanding example. Democracy requires a certain degree of maturity on the part of the public in order to work; even then, I agree with Winston Churchill that it is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

There is something, though, which is much, much better than democracy, and should be used for decision making whenever possible: free choice.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 01:20 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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Democracy is absolutely the worst form of government, including all the others. The US is widely misunderstood as being a democracy. It is NOT! It is a REPUBLIC. The Founding Fathers of America rightly loathed democracy, comparing, or even equating, it with mob rule. No democracy has ever stood the test of time. What's the simplest way to explain the problem? Democracy is two foxes and a chicken voting on what's for dinner. No democracy can stand the test of time. As soon a bare majority realizes it can give itself "free" goodies (through a form of theft known as taxation) the end is near. Already, the top 50% of taxpayers in America pay 96% of all income taxes!!!

So what's a republic? I mean, a real republic, not the various murderous "people's republics" around the world. A republic is basically a form of government that disperses power as much as possible. Read the American Constitution or the Federalist Papers to get an idea. The central (Federal) government was given limited, enumerated powers, all other powers were in the hands of the constituent states or the people themselves.

Has America lived up to this lofty ideal? Unfortunately, no. There is very little that separates it from democracy (aka mob rule) today. The various branches of the Federal government (ie executive, legislative, and judicial) have colluded to emasculate the Constitution, usurp powers that are the proper domain of the states or the people, and basically take away people's freedom.

Posted by: Scott at May 19, 2004 03:19 PM Permalink

"A republic is basically a form of government that disperses power as much as possible."

I think we are agreeing, but I'm not sure.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 19, 2004 05:08 PM Permalink

God and Evolution

Michael Williams goes to bat against evolution, pointing out that “belief in evolution is based on faith.” I certainly agree that God could have created the universe as it is now, complete with its fossil record. Why He would do that, just to confuse us, I don’t know, but it’s possible. What’s not possible is that evolution is not ongoing from this point on – unless you subscribe to the belief that God recreates the world at every moment – our false memories and all – which, I think, is position of Islam.

However, those who try to disprove evolution usually have a secret agenda. They falsely think that belief in evolution is incompatible with the belief that God created the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Did God part the Red Sea? Not according to the anti-evolutionists – the Red Sea was parted by a strong east wind!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 04:10 PM  Permalink | Comments (8)
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I have no problem with micro-evolution, where a single species may adapt and even differentiate slightly (just look at people to see how much variation is possible within a single species). But the idea of macro-evolution, where one species evolves into another by random mutation is simply ludicrous and statistically untenable.

Posted by: Scott at May 19, 2004 04:20 PM Permalink

Where does micro end and macro begin? There are many, many examples of cases where it's hard to say.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 19, 2004 05:11 PM Permalink

If you have any, I'd like to hear about them.

Posted by: Scott at May 19, 2004 05:27 PM Permalink

Here are four:

Of the 27 species previously dropped from the endangered species list (four more since Edwards’ statement), USFWS notes scientific revision as the primary reason for delisting the Mexican duck, the purple-spined hedgehog cactus, the spineless hedgehog cactus, and the Bidens cuneate.
Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 19, 2004 06:10 PM Permalink

Not sure how that muddles the distinction between the two. As I noted, looking just at people, there is remarkable variation within just one species (skin color, height, hair, and numerous other characteristics). Or dogs. Or horses. An alien coming to earth for the first time might mistake many people as being different species. When Darwin noted the variation among finches, he wasn't identifying anything more than normal differentiation from the different populations being isolated over long periods of time. WE might called them different subspecies, but that's just our our own desire to classify and differentiate. They can interbreed, the variation was always in the genome, and if the different populations were to be brought together, the distinctions would disappears within a few generations.

You should read some of the well-known critiques of macro-evolution, like "Not by Chance!" by Lee Spetner, who argues from a statistical and mathematical perspective and points out that many of the classic mutations (like for bacteria acquiring immunity against antibiotics) actually REMOVE information from the genome. Great reading. Others that I haven't read include "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis" and "Darwin's Black Box." Admittedly, these are all written for the layperson, but they make many, many good points and raise so many questions you have to conclude that evolution is a theory, and a hotly debated one at that, and not scientific writ as many people insist on treating it.

Posted by: Scott at May 19, 2004 06:24 PM Permalink

Darwin himself raises these questions, and gives very good answers (without even knowing about the existence of genes, by the way).

These are the questions he raises:

These difficulties and objections may be classed under the following heads:-Firstly, why, if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms? Why is not all nature in confusion instead of the species being, as we see them, well defined?

Secondly, is it possible that an animal having, for instance, the structure and habits of a bat, could have been formed by the modification of some animal with wholly different habits? Can we believe that natural selection could produce, on the one hand, organs of trifling importance, such as the tail of a giraffe, which serves as a fly-flapper, and, on the other hand, organs of such wonderful structure, as the eye, of which we hardly as yet fully understand the inimitable perfection?

Thirdly, can instincts be acquired and modified through natural selection? What shall we say to so marvellous an instinct as that which leads the bee to make cells, which have practically anticipated the discoveries of profound mathematicians?

Fourthly, how can we account for species, when crossed, being sterile and producing sterile offspring, whereas, when varieties are crossed, their fertility is unimpaired?

I refer you to Origin of Species for the answers, in particular chapter 6

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 19, 2004 07:50 PM Permalink

Thanks for the link.

I didn't "go to bat against evolution" per se, but my general point is that, yes, believing in evolution is a decision of faith. What's amusing to me is that some people are so in love with the idea of having no faith whatsoever that the resist this notion.

As if they went and did the research themselves, and weren't putting faith, at least, in other human scientists.

Posted by: Michael Williams at May 25, 2004 03:24 AM Permalink


This brings us to the most important question.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 25, 2004 12:20 PM Permalink

Definition of a Fanatic

A fanatic is one who is unwilling to consider evidence that his or her beliefs might be wrong.

It is NOT one who has strongly-held or unpopular beliefs.

I offer this definition as a public service, and out of respect to Scott.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 06:22 PM  Permalink | Comments (3)
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I certainly know what a fanatic is. Not sure what you mean by this. I grew up in a liberal household and believed evolution was received scientific truth. However, I never stopped seeking and searching and kept an open mind about my encounters and explorations, and, well,while in college concluded that things were not as I believed.

I don't believe I am fanatic that way, just very demanding for rigorous proof to be convinced otherwise. Many renowned scientists acknowledge the problems with Darwinian evolution (and it's academic offshoots like punctuated equilibrium). Some recognize the religious implications and remain silent. Others however, are uncomfortable with those implications, then insist, without any evidence at all, that earth must have been seeded long ago by an alien species. I am not making this up! Names like Hoyle and Crick.

Until the 1960's the vast majority of scientists (something like 85%) insisted, despite the growing body of evidence to the contrary, that the universe always existed. Did you know this? Big ones. Like Einstein. Only when the proof became so overwhelming (mainly by Arno and Penzias' inadvertant discovery of the cosmic background radiation) was the final nail driven in the coffin of the steady-state theory.

These types of people listed above are fanatics. They refuse to see what's right in front of them.

I don't put myself in that category. I am interested in the truth. I have no horse in any particular race. I'm not attached to any particular view other than the truth. Got it?

Posted by: Scott at May 19, 2004 07:13 PM Permalink

Scott, I was trying to say that you're NOT a fanatic! (The evidence was that you asked for examples of cases where it's hard to tell the difference between micro and macro.)

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at May 19, 2004 07:35 PM Permalink

Me bad! Sorry about that.

Posted by: Scott at May 19, 2004 07:53 PM Permalink

Noam Chomsky wins prize

Amritas's favorite LLLiberal wins German Prize. David Frum reports:

But Europe has unfurled the red carpet for anti-American crackpots. Take a look at this story from a very useful (English-language) blog on the German media: The German city of Oldenburg has awarded its annual prize for contemporary history and politics to … Noam Chomsky! Brace yourself for the irony: Oldenburg’s prize is named for Carl von Ossietzky, a gallant opponent of the Nazis who spent five years in a concentration camp before his untimely death in 1938. Ossietzky won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935.

Chomsky of course has a longstanding interest in the German concentration camps too: He contributed a preface to a book by Robert Faurisson, a French holocaust denier. I doubt that Carl von Ossietzky would be pleased by what has been done in his name. But then again, I doubt that today’s Europeans care very much about remembering what real fascism was – who succumbed to it – and which nation saved humanity from its rule. To remember what the United States has done in the past would provoke too many uncomfortable questions about what Europe is doing in the present.

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May 20, 2004

Oil prices are falling

Russell Roberts of Cafe Hayek gives several reasons why oil prices are falling over time (in real terms), countering the seemingly common-sense argument that they should rise at the rate of interest (if prices rise less, then sell your oil and by bonds). He points out that the transaction costs for selling oil – extracting it from the ground – are much higher than the transaction costs of selling bonds.

I think, however, he misses the most important aspect of this – that the cost of extracting oil is relatively low until you reach capacity – and then it goes way up, because it requires adding capacity. The economics of the situation strongly encourages pumping oil at capacity, making production relatively impervious to interest rates.

UPDATE – Russell Roberts writes: I actually think the capacity part is only a small part of it. There are search costs of finding new sources, extra costs of pumping oil from difficult spots and so on.

Believe it or not, I was actually thinking of these sorts of things when I said "adding capacity".

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Who is rich?

The EconLog has a post called, “Who is rich?” which quotes from David R. Henderson and Charley Hooper as follows:

Except for the few hundred thousand who are homeless, the Americans whom the U.S. government defines as poor live exceptionally rich lives. In most ways, their lives are better than those of kings and queens just 200 years ago. Consider the quality and quantity of our food, clothing, refrigerators, televisions, washing machines, stereo systems, and automobiles. King Louis XIV of France had a greenhouse so he could eat oranges. The poor in this country can eat an orange every day, regardless of season. King Edward III of England could summon the royal musicians to play music. The poor in this country have a wide variety of music at their command, 24 hours a day, played note-perfect every time. Edward III lived in a dark, smelly, cold castle. Even the worst houses in this country are more comfortable and have electric lights, too. Care to live without showers and flush toilets? The kings of England and France had to. Next time you see a Shakespeare play in which kings and princes cavort, remember that royalty in Shakespeare's day had rotten teeth, terrible breath, and body odor that would make you keel over.

I can’t help linking to this post because, “Who is rich?” is part of a famous passage from Pirqey Avot:

איזהו חכם – הלומד מכל אדם
איזהו גיבור – הכובש את יצרו
איזהו עשיר – השמח בחלקו
איזהו מכובד – המכבד את הברייות

Eyzehu hakham – halomed mikol adam
Eyzehu gibor – hakovesh et yisro
Eyzehu `ashir – hasameah b’helko
Eyzehu m’khubad – ham’khabed et habriyot

Who is wise – one who learns from every human being
Who is a hero – one who conquers his inclinations
Who is rich – one who is happy with his lot
Who is respectable – one who respects his fellow man

We have romantic images of people living on the American frontier in the mid-1800s. Though their lives were hard, we don’t think of them as living in abject poverty. In fact, they weren’t; I am in frequent contact with people who live in what would be considered abject poverty, but in fact live very rich lives – they just have less things. On the other hand, one of the reasons why being poor in the US is so horrible is that it makes it hard to get away from people who are impoverished also in spirit.

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This too shall pass:

The temporal argument is 2 sided -- If we are "wealthier" today than the long dead royalty of Shakespeare's time, than we are also much poorer than people from the lowest rung of society 400 years hence.

Of course, both are foolish arguments.

Nobody today thinks to themselves: "Huzzah! I am wealthier than King Henry!", nor do they lament "Alas! I have less wealth than the poorest schlump to be born in the year 2404. . . woe is me.".

Quite frankly, its transparently disingenuous and foolish view: It is the nature of mankind is to relentlessly raise his standard of living, generation after generation. This has been especially true over the past 500 years. And progress is accellerating at an ever quickening pace. Consider the gains we've made this past century, and even this past decade.

Yes, we are much better off than people 400 years ago.

But, due to the accellerating pace of progress, the equivalent leap in standard of living is nonlinear -- meaning its likely to happen much faster than 400 years into the future. Our gains versus the people who lived in England in the 1600s will likely be had by inhabitant's of America in the year 2104, a mere 100 years from now. What the living standard will be like in 2404, 400 years hence, is simply inconceivable.

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz at May 22, 2004 04:05 PM Permalink

I really appreciate blogs like this one becuase it is insightful and helps me communicate with others.

Posted by: Chris Peterson at January 26, 2005 03:56 AM Permalink

Noun or Verb?

The previous post has some good examples of Hebrew words where it is unclear whether they’re nouns, verbs or adjectives.

One example: Hakovesh et yisro

Which I translate as: One who conquers his inclinations

But kovesh seems to be a noun, as indicated by ha- which means “the”, so maybe a better translation is: The conqueror of his inclinations.

But “et” does not mean “of” – it’s a direct-object marker (a preposition for direct objects). What is the verb of this direct object? Kovesh!

It could be an adjective too. Example: Ha’ish hakovesh – The conquering man.

But what if it were: Ha’ish hakovesh et yisro ?

Which I would translate as: The man who conquers his inclinations.

But might be more literally translated as: The conquering-his-inclinations man.

I should stress that while it’s not clear to me how to parse this, the meaning is unambiguous.

(Also, yisro is actually “his inclination” but its clear to a Hebrew speaker that it refers to all of his inclinations.)

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May 22, 2004

George Orwell against nuance and subtlety

George Orwell makes the case against nuance and subtlety:

What I object to is the intellectual cowardice of people who are objectively and to some extent emotionally pro-Fascist, but who don’t care to say so and take refuge behind the formula ‘I am just as anti-fascist as anyone, but—’. The result of this is that so-called peace propaganda is just as dishonest and intellectually disgusting as war propaganda. Like war propaganda, it concentrates on putting forward a ‘case’, obscuring the opponent’s point of view and avoiding awkward questions. The line normally followed is ‘Those who fight against Fascism go Fascist themselves.’ In order to evade the quite obvious objections that can be raised to this, the following propaganda-tricks are used:
  1. The Fascizing processes occurring in Britain as a result of war are systematically exaggerated.
  2. The actual record of Fascism, especially its pre-war history, is ignored or pooh-poohed as ‘propaganda’. Discussion of what the world would actually be like if the Axis dominated it is evaded.
  3. Those who want to struggle against Fascism are accused of being wholehearted defenders of capitalist ‘democracy’. The fact that the rich everywhere tend to be pro-Fascist and the working class are nearly always anti-Fascist is hushed up.
  4. It is tacitly pretended that the war is only between Britain and Germany. Mention of Russia and China, and their fate if Fascism is permitted to win, is avoided.

The parallels to today’s situation should be obvious. I greatly value nuance and subtlety – for example, it is necessary in order to understand any system that involves feedback, such as economics, where secondary effects quickly become dominant. However, nuance and subtlety are often used for another purpose entirely – to lie.

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May 23, 2004

Islamist Ghost Dancers

Are Islamists the Ghost Dancers of the 21st century?

All hope of defeating the United States militarily was gone, grinding poverty was endemic, and assimilation was the policy of the U. S. government. The arrival of railroads brought waves of settlers into former Indian lands. Wovoka’s message of a new golden age was therefore received with great enthusiasm, and it spread quickly among the tribes of the Great Basin and the Great Plains. Many tribes sent delegates to visit Wovoka, hear his message, and receive instructions for the dance. Throughout the year 1890 the Ghost Dance was performed, stimulating anticipation of a return of the old ways.

The Plains Indians added a new twist to the Ghost Dance message, a belief that the great changes at hand would include the eradication of whites, or at least their being driven away from Indian lands. Some, especially the Lakota, went farther yet, creating in mid-1890 “ghost shirts” and “ghost dresses,” special garments that were believed to be bulletproof–indeed, impenetrable by any kind of weapon. The shirts were decorated with symbols of religious significance–sun, moon, stars–and often adorned with eagle feathers.

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Moderate Islam

David Frum posts about Islam. It ends thus:

You often hear people say that the Islamic world needs a “Reformation.” Alas, in many ways, Islamic extremism is the Muslim “Reformation.” Al Qaeda and its ideological supporters are rejecting a thousand years of interpretation - interpretation that has tended to soften the often harsh Koranic text - to return to the bald words of Islamic scripture.

He also links to Iraqi blogger Zeyad, who ends his post thus:

I can go on and on, but I would rather not. I have intensively examined the Quran and Sunna, and I might have a few things that would scare some pious believers. Maybe, some other time, when I'm in a safer environment, I would devote a website or a book to the subject.

And that is the problem with Islam today. I think it’s ridiculous when non-Moslems proclaim the morality or moderation of Islam. Unfortunately, I’m not hearing it from Moslems themselves.

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May 24, 2004

The role-reversal of Democrats and Republicans

I have long wondered at the role-reversal of Democrats and Republicans in recent years. It used to be Democrats who wanted to aggressively pursue liberty around the world, now it’s Republicans. It used to be Democrats who advocated low tariffs, now it’s Republicans. It used to be Democrats who were the party of the common man, now it’s Republicans.

Conversely, it used to be Republicans who advocated government support for big business, now it’s Democrats. It used to be Republicans who advocated isolationism, now it’s Democrats. It used to be Republicans who were the party of the elite, now it’s Democrats.

Of course the picture is more complex than this, there are positions that haven’t changed. There are individuals in both parties who don’t fit the party stereotype. Part of the answer has to do with changing conventional wisdom. But I’ve been thinking of something else – I’m not sure of it myself, and I’m interested in your feedback.

I’ve been thinking the following: The real issue dividing the two parties is stasis vs. ferment.

In a two-party democratic system, electoral politics pushes the parties inexorably into dividing the public into two 50-50 camps. The issue that has always been the basis of this division is whether or not to risk change, or whether to strive to keep things the same. In this battle, the party of ferment always has the advantage – though people do make mistakes, human intelligence combined with the results of trial-and-error tends to lead to improvements. Perhaps more importantly, society’s most energetic and industrious people are naturally attracted to the party of ferment.

So who is attracted to the party of stasis? On the one hand, the children of the elite – children of successful entrepreneurs, self-made academics, etc. – people who are born to success under the existing system. On the other hand, people who are unsuccessful, but for one reason or another don’t want to strive for success.

So how does this explain the Democratic/Republican flip-flops? Because the single biggest factor in determining party affiliation is the party affiliation of your parents. So my postulate is that the children don’t change parties, the parties change to suit the children.

Since 1861, when Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president, the parties have changed places twice. The Republicans started as a party of ferment and subsequently dominated the presidency. Gradually they became a party of stasis and lost their dominance. The tipping point was reached around 1930 with FDR, when the Democrats clearly became the party of ferment. But by the 1970s, the Democrats had become the party of stasis once again. For a while, there were two competing stasis parties, and then came Ronald Reagan. Now the Republicans are once again the party of ferment.

You may notice that both parties were dominant for about two generations – one of ferment, one of stasis.

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May 27, 2004

Left Right Classification

I see that there is some confusion out there about which movements belong to the left, and which to the right. (Amritas complains about it here, Scott, in my comments here.) Of course, the problem is that people, ideas, and movements are not one-dimensional. However, for the sake of clarity, at least regarding two of the infinite number of possible dimensions, I would like to propose the following:









UPDATE: I have been asked to define the difference between Socialist and Nationalist. (Doing so should also define their opposites.) A nationalist wants to use government power to advance national goals, e.g. defense. A socialist wants to use government power to advance social goals, e.g. education. (I have purposely chosen relatively uncontroversial examples, though a pure libertarian would advocate against both.)

UPDATE: By this definition the USSR could be defined as Fascist, though its rhetoric was Left-wing. In practice, Fascist states were only slightly less socialist than Communist states, while Communist states were only slightly less nationalist than Fascist states.

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May 30, 2004

Heroism and esprit de corps

Steven Den Beste posts about heroism. Why do heroes do what they do? Steven concludes (I am radically paring down his words) that it is because of esprit de corps. In other words – it is our tribal instinct.

It is not uncommon for people to look back at their time as a soldier and report that “it's the only time I ever felt alive”. Part of the reason is surely that it is a peak experience. But part is that it is an intensely tribal experience.

I have spoken a lot about tribes without defining them – I will now attempt to do so. A tribe is a voluntary social unit in which its members have (to some degree) an altruistic relationship with each other. It is the state of being which is most natural for humans – the state in which human beings feel most alive.

I followed Steven’s link to Bunker Mulligan, where one post down I found the following quote:

People in this country share something with me that those in other countries don't. People who want to denigrate that opinion need only ask themselves (honestly) whom do they cheer for in Olympic events.

It is a sign that there is something healthy about American society: to some extent people feel they are part of a tribe.

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Media bias and feedback systems

Steven Den Beste has an excellent post on media bias. Among many other things he says:

But that [bias] also will happen in other kinds of organizations. In academia in the most leftist departments it's deliberate activism, but in news organizations it tends to be more indirect. Promotion is more based on merit, but senior people will evaluate the writing and performance of juniors partly on the basis of ideology, even if unconsciously: what they write will be seen as "more accurate", "making more sense" if the junior person's politics and world view are similar to the senior. Thus there will also be a tendency within news organizations for ideologies to reinforce, and for objectivity to transform into bias. (And note that when people in those organizations deny bias and claim that they are objective, they're not lying even though they may be wrong. They truly think they are objective; most of them see themselves as "moderate" and "centrist" even when they are well away from the broader consensus of the population.)

Steven is a systems engineer, so he probably recognizes this as a system with positive feedback. In systems engineering positive feedback is a bad thing. It means that random deviations – in this case, ways of understanding the news not derived from reality, but from the unconscious ideology or worldview of the reporter – are fed back into the system and amplified. This self-reinforcement (positive feedback) will result in the whole system spinning out of control – in this case, not reporting the truth.

One engineering response would be to look for some kind of flywheel (the flywheel is a device for regulating the inherent positive feedback in steam engines – it provides the negative feedback which the system otherwise lacks). Another would be to look for ways to redesign the system so that it doesn’t have positive feedback to begin with.

I can’t think of realistic ways to implement either of these solutions in the media. Steven offers the following, simultaneously rejecting it:

Some will say that the general tendency of individual news organizations to move from objectivity to bias can be handled through competition between independent news organizations, but there's a problem with that. Competition would reward reportage of what is popular, not reportage of what is true. Do we want the media to tell us what we want to hear, or what we need to hear?

The initial state of having several news sources which were biased in several ways would permit individual citizens to look at them all and try to get an idea of the reality behind those reports (similar to how juries compare the cases made by opposing attorneys).

But that kind of competitive system is unstable and tends to shakeout and concentration. If one network gets good ratings in part because of a particular bias, other news organizations will eventually move to similar positions. There may not be business shakeout but there will be ideological shakeout.

If viewers prefer one TV network over another in part based in differences in bias between them, and reward one with better ratings, then this substitutes the consensus bias in the electorate for the internal bias of the news organizations. That may be a change, but it isn't clear that it's an improvement.

I think that this analysis was correct in the pre-internet age, when barriers to entry into the media market were very high. But if barriers to entry are sufficiently low, the “ideological shakeout” will not occur. If there is any market at all for a particular point of view, then it will be expressed. (In the business world this is called a niche market. A lot of money can be made by selling to niche markets, maybe not as much as selling to broad markets, but one of the wonderful things about the free enterprise system, is that if there’s money to be made by offering a particular product, someone will do it, no matter how small the profits are in absolute terms.) Over time, a minority point of view may even become popular. I understand that the popularity of a point of view does not necessarily depend on its merits. But neither to I think that, over time, it is completely divorced from its merits. In any case, this is our only hope.

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Negative Feedback

A brief illustration of negative feedback:

If you want to design a car to go from point X to point Y there are two possible ways to do it. One way is to point the car at point Y (remember it’s already sitting at point X) and calibrate all the systems very carefully to make sure that it veers neither left nor right. You better make sure that you do an excellent job, because any imperfection will keep it from reaching its destination.

Another way is to not worry so much about the calibration of the systems. Instead add a feedback system that tells the car to turn left if it veers to the right, and right if it veers to the left. This is a much more robust way to design a system, because it will work even when the calibrations are off. Notice that the feedback is opposite in direction to the car’s deviation, that’s why it’s called negative feedback.

(For the sake of completeness, negative feedback will not work if it results in a greater deviation than the original one – for example, if veering to the right results in a deviation to the left that is greater than the original deviation to the right.)

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Gore is like the Instapundit

I am not referring here to ideology. The Instapundit says:

Once again, the Gore endorsement looks like the kiss of death.

I think that Glenn well knows that this is a case of correlation rather than cause-and-effect. The same way that Glenn instinctively links to important news, Gore instinctively links to wacky causes doomed to fail.

UPDATE: An economist might call Gore a leading indicator.

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May 31, 2004


Amritas includes a take-off of John Lennon’s Imagine in his last post. I always found the original chilling enough. It’s a beautiful tune, one that reverberates in my head – like a beautiful but evil nemesis. It proposes to solve all the world’s problems by eliminating everything that makes life worth living, and winds up:

You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you'll join us,
And the world will live as one.

Lennon’s idea of “one” of course.


UPDATE: Of course, Amritas’s version is not really a take-off at all; it just fills in some of the details.

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