What does it mean?

July 30, 2004

14 Characteristics of Fascism

John Ray posts a list, authored by Laurence W. Britt, of 14 characteristics of fascism. Despite it’s ridiculous conclusion, and its missing “15th characteristic” (which John takes pains to point out) I found it quite accurate. Which regimes today do these characteristics accurately describe? All the Arab regimes, with the possible exception (I hope) of Iraq. The headers are as follows:

1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.
2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.
4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism.
5. Rampant sexism.
6. A controlled mass media.
7. Obsession with national security.
8. Religion and ruling elite tied together.
9. Power of corporations protected.
10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.
11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts.
12. Obsession with crime and punishment.
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption.
14. Fraudulent elections.

Which one doesn’t apply to Arab regimes? They all apply, to an extreme degree.

I would like to draw your attention to characteristics 9 and 13 – not because they are necessarily more important than the others, but because they are most likely to be misunderstood. It is commonly thought that big companies favor capitalism (free enterprise). Nothing could be further from the truth! A big company would like nothing more than to be institutionalized by the government. This is particularly true once the entrepreneurial founder has retired – though under fascist regimes a different kind of entrepreneurism flourishes: the art of currying favor with the government. (One expert at this kind of entrepreneurism was Osama Bin Laden’s father, who was a favorite of the Saudi royal family.)

It is a lack of imagination that makes a reader suppose that this list can be compatible with capitalism. “Power of corporations protected” surely doesn’t refer to your small-town general store, which could be the next Wal-Mart, nor does it refer to the tinkerer in his garage, who might stumble upon the next big thing. In relatively free economies, people like these are the primary source of corporations, and the biggest employers. The power of which corporations are protected? The big corporations, of course. From what do they want to be protected? From the free market, from the possibility that some insignificant, one-man, two-bit corporation, could one day challenge them. How do they achieve this protection? “Rampant cronyism and corruption.” Cronyism and corruption are enemies of free enterprise.

This system is not new, fascism is the modern-day incarnation of feudalism. At a time when the primary source of wealth was land, a small group of people – the aristocracy – sought to institutionalize its wealth by granting itself a monopoly on government (with consequent monopoly on the military). Now that the primary source of wealth is industry, a (not necessarily) new group of people seeks to do the same. Unfortunately for our ability to understand this phenomenon, we have no word for this group of people. Perhaps I should propose one: the fascistocracy.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I have nothing against big business as long as it doesn’t get special favors from the government, i.e. as long as it maintains its success by better serving its customers. However, it should be noted that bigger government by nature favors big business – they are the ones with the resources to cope with increased bureaucracy and regulations, and the influence to get government contracts. Wherever the power of government is greater, you will find the economy more dominated by big business. The economies of Canada and Europe, for example, are much more dominated by big business than the economy of the US.

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Fruits of Israel

Iraq the Model has post on date palms:

The date is considered as a fruit and food and you can get many products from it such as vinegar, arak (the most famous local alcoholic drink in Iraq) and date honey (dibis) and the leaves of the palm has always been used in building cottages and furniture in the urban areas of Iraq.

Generally there’s a strong bond between Iraqis and date palms and there’s a saying that is believed to be one of Mohammed the prophet sayings that mention the date palm as being created from what was left of the ashes that Adam was created from, and the date palm was mentioned several times in the Koran.
Date palms are also well loved by Israelis, and mentioned numerous times in the Bible. They are considered one of the five fruits that particularly characterize the land of Israel, the others being grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives.


– date


– dates


– grape


– grapes


– fig


– figs


– pomegranate


– pomegranates


– olive


– olives

Arak is also a popular drink in Israel, though in general, distilled drinks are not very popular here, by US standards. “Date honey” – dibis, is obviously a cognate to Hebrew dvash – “honey”. In fact, in Biblical Hebrew dvash meant date honey, as in the famous verse: “a land flowing with milk and honey” – eres zavat halav udvash (lit. a land oozing milk and honey).

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July 29, 2004

Mazal Tov Amritas

מזל טוב לבן נצח
עד מאה ועשרים

Mazal tov l’ven nesah
`ad me’a v`esrim

Happy Birthday Amritas
May you live to 120

Actually, “Mazal tov” means congratulations, not happy birthday. But Israelis don’t say, “Happy birthday” to someone who has a birthday. Not that it’s ungrammatical, it’s just not normal. It would be something like wishing an English speaker, “Good week.” You can say, “Good day,” why can’t you say, “Good week?” It’s just not done. But in Hebrew it’s normal to say, shavua` tov – “Good week.”

So why did I translate it as, “happy birthday?” The wish, `ad me’a v`esrim is the traditional blessing for one who has a birthday, so obviously, “congratulations” means “happy birthday” in this context.

(If you’re wondering about the Hebrew for Amritas, go here. Grammatical point: b > v after a vowel, when not doubled. In this case the vowel is a schwa.)

UPDATE: To see what Amritas says go here.

UPDATE: Thirty-three in Hebrew is shloshim v’shalosh (lit. thirty and three). In Biblical Hebrew it would be the other way around: shalosh ushloshim. A thirty-three year-old in Hebrew is ben shloshim v’shalosh. Hebrew numbers have gender from 1 to 10, after that, they’re genderless. In this case, shalosh is feminine, (masculine: shlosha) not because Amritas is feminine! It agrees with the unspoken word “year,” shana, which is feminine. (For those of you who are wondering, usually words that end in –a are feminine, but for numbers it’s the other way around.)

Today Amritas is thirty three.
Hayom Ben Nesah ben shloshim v’shalosh.

(lit. Today Amritas is a thirty-three year-old.)
(more lit. Today Son of Eternity is a son of thirty-three.)
(even more lit. This day Son of Eternity is a son of thirty-three.)

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Klingon blog

Who knew, there’s a Klingon blog out there. I wonder what it says. Maybe the author can tell us some interesting things about it?

UPDATE: I found The Klingon Language Institute site and guess what? It's hosted by The Logical Language Group! Remember them?

UPDATE: Just to remind you, here's where we first met Adam.

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July 28, 2004

Falun Gong Swastika

The emblem of the Falun Gong (via OpinionJournal), also known as Falun Dafa, is a backward swastika surrounded by smaller swastikas alternating with yin-yang symbols. Part of their explanation is as follows:

The English and German word Swastika is derived from the Sanskrit word: Svastikah, which means "being fortunate." The first part of the word, SVASTI-, can be divided into two parts: SU- (good; well), and -ASTI- (is.) The -ASTIKAH part just means "being". The word is associated with auspicious things in India – because it means "auspicious." In India, both clockwise and counterclockwise swastikas were used, with different meanings.

The swastika symbol has been used for thousands of years among practically every group of humans on the planet. It was known to Germanic tribes as the "Cross of Thor," and it is interesting that the Nazis did not use that term, which is consistent with German history, but instead preferred to "steal" the Indian term "swastika." As the "Cross of Thor," the symbol was even brought to England by Scandinavian settlers in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, long before Hitler. Even more interesting, the sign has been found on Jewish temples from 2000 years ago in Palestine, so Hitler was (inadvertently?) "stealing" a Jewish symbol as well as an Indian one.

This is true. I have seen for myself ancient synagogues decorated with swastikas. But the Nazis have irrevocably changed its meaning. To me it looks evil, I can’t imagine anyone thinking it beautiful, inspiring, or good. Evidently, the Falun Gong disagree:

The Falun emblem is the symbol of Falun Dafa. The character in the center (<link removed>) is the symbol called "wan", which has been used in many cultures for thousands of years to denote good fortune.

It gives me the creeps.

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Social Democracy is Fascism

Nelson Ascher (via Amritas):

Social-democracy has been much more successful than either capitalism or communism in one thing: the manufacturing of consent. Besides, at least in theory, neither capitalism nor communism has any trust in the State. Though what he did in practice was the opposite, Lenin, according to his writings, saw the abolition of the State as something desirable. And capitalism on the other hand considers the State a kind of inevitable evil that shouldn’t be allowed to grow too much. But in the eyes of social-democratic ideologues, the state is the very materialization of what’s best in human nature and society.
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Free enterprise and anti-Semitism

Amritas says:

I'll just say that anti-Semitism is the sibling of anti-capitalism.

It is true, but anti-Semitism is the sibling of any ideology that seeks hidden manipulators as the explanation for why things are the way they are. Jews, visible but foreign, the eternal other, make a good hook on which to hang any accusation. So we are not just scheming capitalists, but also scheming communists. Back when Christianity was more important than either ideology, we were the anti-Christ. In the era of minority empowerment, we are unique in being the only minority not deserving special understanding. In the era of multi-culturism we are the only culture not worthy of protection.

It reminds me of a joke, which will be familiar to my Jewish readers:

One Jew says to another: Why are you always reading that anti-Semitic newspaper?

Answer: It’s always so full of good news. We’re rich! We control the world! But there’s one thing I don’t understand, how come I’m always the last to know?

Nevertheless, capitalism has a special place with respect to anti-Semitism not because capitalists are less anti-Semitic than others, and not because Jews are more capitalist than others, but because money is the great equalizer. Or, as the expression goes, “all money is green” (at least in the US, have they come out with colored money yet?). In other words, in contrast to all other systems, the ruler of the capitalist system is not a person, or group of people, but Adam Smith’s invisible hand. In a free-enterprise system (by the way, I far prefer the term “free-enterprise” to “capitalist,” because freedom and enterprise are much more important than capital to its inner workings) no human barriers can long resist the enterprise of a persecuted people. Why are there “Jewish” banks in the US? Because the non-Jewish old-guard bankers wouldn’t hire Jews, so they were forced to found their own banks. Why are there “Jewish” hospitals in the US? Because the non-Jewish hospitals wouldn’t hire Jewish doctors. Why are there so many Jews in Hollywood? Because it was a new industry at a time when a lot of Jews immigrated the US. Jews were attracted to Hollywood because it didn’t have an establishment to discriminate against them. What happened when Ivy League schools wouldn’t accept Jews? They went to City College (now City University of New York). The result:

At last count, there were 11 Nobel Prize winners among the alumni of what came to be called "the poor man's Harvard." Prominent graduates include Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Jonas Salk, Intel founder Andrew Grove, General Colin Powell, civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Ira Gershwin, novelist Oscar Hijuelos, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, writer Walter Moseley, and entertainers Ben Gazzara, Paul Simon, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jimmy Smits. A Standard & Poor's survey found that more top corporate executives had degrees from CUNY than from any other single university; Yale came in second.

Like water building up behind a dam, free enterprise will find any crack in the system from which to burst through – the ultimate weapon of a persecuted minority.

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Jews mourn at opening of Democratic Convention

Does anyone else think it’s weird that the Democratic Convention opened on Tish`a b’av?

Perhaps only actor Ben Affleck caused more stares on the floor of the Democratic Convention Monday night than the gathering of roughly 25 Jews, sitting on the floor, chanting the Book of Lamentations at the start of Tisha Be'av.

The day of mourning, commemorating the destruction of the Temple, coincided with the first night of the convention. And to help out observant Jews in need of a place to pray, the National Jewish Democratic Council arranged for Bill Hamilton, a Boston rabbi, to lead a service at the Fleet Center.

Considering that conventions are purely for publicity, it seems somehow inauspicious.

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Well, on the advice (see comment) of Bryan Ashcroft, I took a look at Kabbalah.com, a site maintained by Kabbalah Centre International, Inc. – evidently where Madonna learns. Brian warned me that, “Serious Kabbalists all seem to regard it as a shallow faddish form of Kabbalah,” but that actually didn’t bother me. What I wanted to know was whether its shallow, faddish messages were real wisdom, and real Kabbalah. I think that there are simple, but meaningful, messages.

It wasn’t as easy to answer that question as I would have liked. I followed that link, and got to a really slick Flash presentation, which strung me along with one teaser after another like this:

Suppose there was a universal wisdom, one singular seed that was the origin of all teachings — a body of knowledge that could reveal the spiritual and physical laws that govern the entire cosmos. What if it could account for and explain every emotion and desire that stirs within you? Suppose it could clarify and resolve all the problems that burden you at this very moment?

What if it could explain all the eruptions that occur in our universe the birth of a new star exploding into existence... to the explosive arguments that erupt in your life? What if it could shed a profound light on the mysteries surrounding the unknown whereabouts of our Creator? In other words, what if it could answer the age-old question, "Where's God?" What if it could blow the lid off of centuries of corruption and superstition, the trademark of religion throughout time?

What if it could offer you practical knowledge in this dizzying, mind-numbing age of endless information? What if it could show you a more effective way to pursue happiness? What if it could help you reclaim all the control you've surrendered to psychiatrists, doctors, consultants, and other people in your life? Perhaps most importantly, what if it could explain all those feelings and thoughts growing inside of you at this very moment, the ones telling you that these compelling claims are just too darn good to be true?

And this:

What if it could offer you practical knowledge in this dizzying, mind-numbing age of endless information? What if it could show you a more effective way to pursue happiness? What if it could help you reclaim all the control you've surrendered to psychiatrists, doctors, consultants, and other people in your life? Perhaps most importantly, what if it could explain all those feelings and thoughts growing inside of you at this very moment, the ones telling you that these compelling claims are just too darn good to be true?

In ancient times, the word "Kabbalah" used to strike cold fear into the hearts of most Rabbis. Its teachings were considered to be far too dangerous and mystical for mere mortal men. Imagine traveling back in time 200 years. Try explaining the concept of a computer, a fax machine, or the Internet for that matter, to the people of this era? They'd brand you as mystic. Curse you as a heretic. Maybe even burn you at the stake.

After enduring this kind of thing for what seemed like an eternity, I finally started to get to something serious:

Scenario 1

Jack is an investment banker who, over the course of 25 years, has accumulated a net worth of $20 million dollars. Jack invested a lot of money in a company that just went Chapter 11. It turns out that Jack lost $15 million dollars in one day. The majority of his wealth has suddenly vanished, but he still has a few million dollars in assets.

Scenario 2

Robert is a carpenter. He earns a modest living of $40,000 a year. Robert has managed to save $10,000 over the last few years and he has invested it in a new Internet company owned by his brother-in-law. This new company launched an IPO (initial public offering) and the stock went through the roof. This took place on the very same day that Jack's company went Chapter 11. Robert made over $50,000 in one day-which is more than he earns in a whole year from his full time job.

Who goes to bed that night with a greater feeling of financial security and peace of mind-Jack or Robert? It doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure that one out.

This is promising. It is a powerful example of a real truth. But it too is a teaser, albeit one which hints at what’s to come. But there’s more:

Whatever force brought about the creation of our universe, it obviously saw it fit to create physical, material items as well. Kabbalah teaches us how to strike that elusive balance between the physical and spiritual so that we can infuse our lives with peace of mind and fulfillment.

There is a reason behind everything in existence, be it physical or spiritual. Once we learn what that reason is, we will learn how to balance our lives so that we get everything we truly need from life.

Good, good, but wait, are they really going to tell us THE REASON?!?! I’m getting really restless now…

But, more slick presentation. A baseball game… the best baseball players… don’t know the rules…

As we have just learned, without an understanding of the rules, talent means absolutely nothing, no matter what game we play. Without the rules, there is fighting, arguing, some people make up their own rules, frustration and chaos are everywhere!

On the other hand, an awareness of the rules produces immediate order. Chaos comes to a screeching halt.

Suddenly, everyone knows what to do, what's expected of them, and how to play the game. Their talents can now blossom. Greatness can fully actualize as they begin to evolve their raw abilities through a series of orderly and well-structured situations that serve to bring out the best in them.

All of which brings us to a game a lot older than the game of baseball. It also happens to be a lot older than basketball, hockey, the Olympics, or any other game for that matter. It's called the Game of Life — and the rule book to this very challenging game was actually recorded in an ancient manuscript some 2000 years ago. It is called "The Zohar", the definitive body of knowledge on Kabbalah; a mystical canon containing all the spiritual laws governing the oldest game in the cosmos.


Many times we're forced to make up our own set of rules, or we're pressured into making up new games. Many times, we feel like picking up a bat and taking a swing at the next guy. Some of us simply quit every time a game situation becomes too frustrating or too difficult.

Kabbalah contends that each one of us is imbued with the power to succeed and achieve greatly in this unique game. But there is a prerequisite: we must learn and master the rules in order for our talents and potential to fully actualize.

To help us fully grasp the 4000-year-old wisdom of Kabbalah, the Kabbalah One Basic Course has broken down the teachings of Kabbalah into 13 simple rules of life.

These are not rules that impose restrictions upon us. Rather, they are universal spiritual precepts that liberate the soul and empower the mind quite profoundly.

You have already learned Rule #1.

What follows are the remaining rules to the Game of Life.

Well that was a cliffhanger! I guess I’ll have to sign up for the course to find out the rest. Somehow, I don’t think I will. What’s my verdict? The jury’s still out. Not my style, very slick. But so far nothing objectionable.

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July 27, 2004

Burning Corpses, Summer of 1944

When the crematoria ovens were not functioning properly, or were insufficient to dispose of the huge volume of corpses, the bodies were burned and then buried in ditches. These photographs from Birkenau were made secretly by members of the Polish resistance, and several of them were smuggled to England.
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July 26, 2004

Tish`a b’av

At sundown, in another two hours, it will be Tish`a b’av – the ninth of the month of Av. Tish`a b’av is a day of mourning. It is the anniversary of the destruction of both the first and second Temples, and the symbolic end of the first and second Jewish commonwealths. (The actual end, at least of the second commonwealth, was a bit later.) While primarily mourning the loss of Jewish sovereignty, Jews also mourn all tragedies which have befallen them, such as the Spanish inquisition (which also began on Tish`a b’av).

On Tish`a b’av, Jews read the book of Lamentations, say qinot – hymns of mourning, fast (don’t eat or drink) and don’t start new ventures. (One of the pieces of evidence that Columbus was Jewish is that he was scheduled to sail on Tish`a B’av, but delayed sailing for one day. On the other hand, his translator, who is known to have been Jewish, might have told him that it was an inauspicious day to begin his venture. Knowing how people relate to bad luck, that alone could have been enough to delay him.)

I don’t know if I’ll be blogging on Tish`a b’av. If I do, it’ll be late in the day.

UPDATE: More here.

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Why does the Left hate so much?

From the Boston Globe (via Sarah):

A POPULAR conceit of the left is that political hatred is a sickness of the right, one to which liberals are largely immune. "Just who are these Clinton haters," asked Time magazine in April 1994, "and why do they loathe Bill and Hillary with such passion?" It answered, in effect: That's just the way conservatives are. The article quoted historian Alan Brinkley: "Liberals tend to value tolerance highly, so there's a greater reluctance to destroy enemies than among the right."

That was a whopper even in 1994, a year when Republican leader Newt Gingrich was routinely vilified as a McCarthyite and a racist. Ten years later, with a storm of Bush hatred raging among liberal Democrats, the notion that the left is too high-minded to savage its opponents is about as plausible as the claim that the moon landings were staged in Hollywood.

The reason they hate Bush so much is that he is a genuine challenge to their ideology, unlike his father (who by the way lost his bid for re-election).

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July 25, 2004

Madonna becomes Esther?

I don’t know what to make of this:

Assuming a newly modest public image more in keeping with that of a nice Jewish girl than a “Material Girl,” pop star Madonna says she has adopted the Hebrew name of Esther. The Catholic-bred singer/actress said in an ABC News “20/20” interview airing on Friday that her identification with the Biblical queen celebrated in the Jewish festival of Purim stems in part from her adherence to the study of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah.

I always thought that Judaism had some general wisdom to offer, that it deserved to be “cool” like Buddhism or Hinduism. But how Jewish is this? Guy Richie, Madonna’s husband objects to it being called Jewish at all:

The religion, said to date back to the second century, is usually described as "Jewish mysticism", but Guy rejects that description. Its advocates say it offers a path to fulfilment based on spiritual and scientific laws of the universe.

Traditionally, before you could study Kabbalah (Qabala) you had to be conversant in Jewish Law (halakha), be over 40, and married. I guess Madonna has two out of three. I actually don’t know what Madonna’s brand of Kabbalah is. For now, I’ll assume it’s for the best.

Qabala in Hebrew means reception. A kabbalist is a m’qubal.

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Amritas is back

For some reason I decided to check Amritas’s blog today, though he wasn’t due back until the end of the week. I don’t know why I did it, but Amritas is back! He surprised us when he left. He surprised us when he returned. What happened? Will he tell us?

UPDATE: Maybe he just had restless legs?

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Money to burn

What do you think about this example of Israeli ingenuity? Repulsed? Embarrassed? I was amused.

Passengers were issued €15-vouchers for food, wine, beer, soft drinks, and snacks on two-way flights.

Issta Lines managing director Ahishai Gal said that Israelis were simply unaccustomed to the method, which is used all over the world. The Transavia CEO said, “If someone buys food for €13, he wants to give his unused balance to someone else, who wants to buy food for €17, without paying the extra €2. The stewardesses would have had to run up and down the plane with calculators in order to keep track of the Israelis passengers’ arithmetic. This method makes it possible to use one less stewardess on each flight, but we would have had to add a stewardess on flights to Israel to keep order.”

Understand the problem: If you have a 15 euro voucher, and you only want to buy 13 euros of food, but your neighbor wants to buy 17 euros worth, you can pool your vouchers and together use all 30 euros. Evidently Europeans are not energetic enough, or cooperative enough to do such a thing – they just throw away the extra 2 euros, and let the guy who would like to use it suffer. I think this indifference to the allocation of resources in Europe is telling.

The sad part is that Transavia discontinued the voucher system altogether, when there’s a simple solution: issue 15 vouchers of 1 euro each, and let people swap them.

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A war against private education

I haven’t been paying much attention to the commission on education reform, figuring that it would finger the usual suspects and recommend the usual fixes. But evidently I was wrong. The Jerusalem Post conducts an interview with the head of the commission. Some key questions:

Will schools be able to determine their own curricula?

One of the focal points of the report is that the education system has to be more state-based on the one hand, but more pluralistic on the other. It has to allow for different worldviews to be expressed in scholastic content. We recommend that 50 percent of education be dedicated to a required core curriculum, and that the other 50% be at the discretion of the schools themselves. We also think that schools should be able to choose a character, so that there will be certain schools that emphasize sports, and others that specialize in science or something else.

Will parents be able to choose schools for their children?

Yes. School choice encourages excellence in different fields, and enables parents to find frameworks suitable for the specific talents and interests of their children. And it will also enable a certain degree of cultural pluralism.

Today, the only way to put one's worldview into practice is to do it outside the state education system. This explains the establishment of schools for the arts, and a school for democracy, or anthroposophy. But as a result, such schools become elitist, segregationist, and expensive.

What we're saying is that we want a complete state-sponsored education system that provides this kind of pluralism within it, for all citizens.

Now this is a reform that I can get enthusiastic about! In fact, it creates an official framework for a trend that already exists in the Israeli education system. But there’s one mystifying thing:

Is "school empowerment" just another euphemism for a capitalist enterprise?

On the day the report was published, there was a lot of media noise about the "privatization of the education system." But anyone who's actually read the report knows that the opposite is the case. We are waging a war against private education. We think that the state is responsible for providing education for everybody; we think that the gaps between different municipalities are too great, which is why we recommend that government funds be funneled into one large education basket, to ensure countrywide equality.

Well, if this has to be sold as “a war against private education” I guess I can live with it.

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Crime and Guns

When I was growing up, one of the most effective arguments for gun control compared the US and Britain. It went something like, “In the US there are <some astronomical number> murders per year, and you can own a gun, in Britain you guns are banned, how many murders to they have per year? Two.” I don’t know what happened, but look at the comparison now. Mark Steyn reports:

Even when you factor in America’s nutcake jurisdictions with the crackhead mayors, the overall crime rate in England and Wales is higher than in all 50 states, even though over there they have more policemen per capita than in the US, on vastly higher rates of pay installing more video surveillance cameras than anywhere else in the Western world. Robbery, sex crimes, and violence against the person are higher in England and Wales; property crime is twice as high; vehicle theft is higher still; the British are 2.3 times more likely than Americans to be assaulted, and three times more likely to be violently assaulted. Between 1973 and 1992, burglary rates in the US fell by half. In Britain, not even the Home Office’s disreputable reporting methods (if a burglar steals from 15 different apartments in one building, it counts as a single crime) can conceal the remorseless rise: Britons are now more than twice as likely as Americans to be mugged; two-thirds will have their property broken into at some time in their lives. Even more revealing is the divergent character between UK and US property crime: In America, just over 10% of all burglaries are “hot burglaries” - committed while the owners are present; in Britain, it’s over half.

I have never really had much enthusiasm for gun advocacy. However, when I came to Israel one of the first things I noticed is that there are guns everywhere. Many people own handguns, but what you really notice are the off-duty soldiers carrying semiautomatic rifles. In the US soldiers leave their guns on base, but in Israel your gun is considered part of your uniform, you have to take it everywhere.

Actually, legal guns are quite strictly controlled. Though it not hard to get one, you do have to get a license, and you have to put in a certain number of hours at the practice range. It’s a common sight here to see people flashing their gun license at security guards – all crowded public places have them: restaurants, supermarkets, malls, etc.

But given the prevalence of guns, it’s interesting to note that the armed crime rate is extremely low. In particular what Steyn calls "British crimes" are unheard of:

the ones I read about when I drive up to Montreal, buy a day-old Telegraph, sit at a sidewalk cafe and wonder why you guys put up with it. You know the sort of thing: the fellow in South Wales who gets kicked to death by thugs just for a laugh, the guy who can't swim who gets tossed off a bridge in the Midlands, the girl who gets her face slashed tottering home in her stilettoes from the nightclub in Manchester . . .
Back in the old days, when terrorists used to try to get away after proving their patriotism, they were almost invariably gunned down by either a civilian or an off-duty soldier. In fact, it is probably recognition of the fact that terrorism in Israel is suicidal that forced them, in desperation, to openly embrace suicide attacks.
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Trackback from trying to grok, CRIME:
My German co-worker has insisted on several occasions that my American co-worker and I are much better off living in Europe than in the US because in Europe we're away from all the crime. Nevermind that my co-worker hails from...

July 23, 2004

The usual suspects

I should have known. Why is it that anti-Semitism is always linked to the same side of the political spectrum? I was embarrassed by this episode up till now, but maybe I should be glad to have it associated with such a loser? The Australian reports (via Instapundit):

IT makes you wonder about Helen Clark's priorities. In two separate sting operations in March and April, Thai police seized 23 bogus New Zealand passports that were being sold on the Bangkok black market. And, if that isn't bad enough, security officials in Thailand expressed the belief al-Qa'ida terrorists have been using the products of these forgery rings for quite some time.

But the prospect of Osama bin Laden flashing a visa-free Kiwi passport as he sauntered through customs at Heathrow didn't seem to bother the New Zealand Prime Minister. In fact, her Government's reaction to these passport forgeries was exceedingly low key. Thus, a Foreign Affairs spokesman responded dismissively to this story, declaring that he "had absolutely no confirmation" of "claims by Thai police that New Zealand passports may have been used by al-Qa'ida-linked terrorists in Europe".

About the same time, two Israeli men were arrested during the course of a rather amateurish plot to obtain a genuine NZ passport under false pretences. Yet on this occasion, Clark was galvanised into action, angrily proclaiming that she had "very strong grounds for believing that these are Israeli intelligence agents". She slapped diplomatic sanctions on Israel, while vociferously decrying this "unfriendly action" that is a "sorry indictment" of the Jewish state.

To put it bluntly, Clark is in trouble. Deep trouble. Not only was she voted New Zealand's "least kissable" woman in a recent survey conducted by Listerine, but the political fortunes of her Labour Party are flagging as well. Over the past year Opposition Leader Don Brash has orchestrated a phoenix-like ascent from the electoral ashes by his National Party. Brash has led the Nats to a commanding position in the New Zealand political landscape by preaching a highly popular creed of free-market economics and equal rights.

BTW, If the Mossad is involved, it is to fight terrorism. You don’t go to Afghanistan on an Israeli passport!

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Exciting Israel

Bjørn Stærk writes a thoroughly entertaining post on his Baltic travels. Among (many) other things, he relates his meeting with a 16-year-old Israeli girl in Denmark:

To her, the tension has become part of the background, part of what's normal. She had moved to Canada once, but found it boring. With all the tension gone, far away from the big conflict, life became suddenly too quiet, too bland. Something was missing, and Israel was her home anyway. So she returned, and intends to stick with her country, even if she has no hope for peace. In a year, she's off for two years of military service.

I share this girl’s sense of excitement about living in Israel, and I think I can assure Bjørn that it doesn’t come from the danger. In fact, I feel much safer living in Israel than I did living in West Philadelphia, where I lived for four years while I attended university. (In fact the worst part of the city is North Philadelphia, West Philadelphia being only moderately bad.) I was afraid to walk the streets at night, and it wasn’t great during the day either. I understand that crime rates in the US have plummeted since I left (I had nothing to do with it!), but I was recently warned to be careful about kidnappings, so I see that worrying about crime is still part of daily life there. Israelis don’t worry about crime. Muggings here are unknown. Murders are almost always crimes of passion. Except for the last two years, and ending a few months ago, I’m quite sure that the chances of dying by violence in Israel are lower than in the US and much of Western Europe.

On the other hand, it’s hard for me to put a finger on exactly what does make life in Israel exciting. Here are some possibilities:

Openness – Israelis are very open people. Meaning is exciting. One of the things that gives life meaning is your relationships, and it is far easier to have a meaningful relationship with the average Israeli than with the average American or European. Now, it is true that this same characteristic can often be annoying – there are a lot of people out there whom you’d rather not know – but on balance, I think, it’s worth it.

Variety – Variety is the spice of life. I think it’s exciting. There are a tremendous variety of Israelis. Not just Arabs and Jews (and some others, like Druse), but also within the Jewish community. You can look at the political parties to see some reflection of this. There are some contributing factors to maintaining this variety. First of all, within the religious community: remember that Judaism is a traditional religion. It requires Jews to maintain their own traditions, while mandating respect for all Jewish traditions. The result is a lot of different Jewish traditions. The Israel school system supports this – each community maintains its own school system. In fact, any sufficiently large group of people can start a school to teach according to their own values.

Jewishness – If you are Jewish, it is tremendously meaningful to be in Israel. Of course, if you are religious, Israel is the Holy Land, and has intrinsic spiritual significance – even Jews who are not nominally religious usually feel this way to some extent. But it is also exciting to feel at the center of things. In the US, I often felt like an outsider. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel a great connection to the US, and to the values it stands for. But in Israel the feeling of connection is that much greater. Its history is my history; its holidays are my holidays. I don’t have to explain myself – not that Americans ever ask for explanations, such openness is not considered polite, but being understood is exciting!

Does all this add up? I don’t know, but it’s what I can think of at the moment.

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July 22, 2004

Every man his hour

The Instapundit proves:

אל תהי בז לכל אדם
ואל תהי מפליג לכל דבר
שאין לך אדם שאין לו שעה
ואין לך דבר שאין לו מקום

Al t’hi baz l’khol adam
V’al t’hi maflig l’khol davar
She’eyn l’kha adam she’eyn lo sha`a
V’eyn l’kha davar she’eyn lo maqom

Don’t be disparaging of any man 
And don’t take exception to any thing
For there is no man who doesn’t have his hour 
And there is no thing that doesn’t have its place

Pirqey Avot 4:3

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Hareios Poter

Here’s a delightful essay on translating Harry Potter (Ἅρειος Ποτήρ – Hareios Poter) into Ancient Greek (via Language Hat). Some of the problems:

Cultural problems There were many, one of the more obvious being relationships - the patriarchal Greeks not really concerning themselves with relationships like mother's sister (very important for Harry of course) because once married a Greek bride would have little contact with her former family. There does exist a word for aunt (mother's as opposed to father's sister), but it's rare - although the Greeks had a word for "women whose husbands are brothers" - εἰνάτερες [einateres] - because this might be important if one of the brothers died.

And colours - it's little appreciated how languages divide up the visible spectum of light in their own way - our red orange yellow etc is of course completely arbitrary- the spectrum is a continuum. The Greeks had very few real colour-words- Homer's "wine-looking, wine-faced" sea is a typical circumlocution (if it in fact means that - the traditional "wine-dark" is a romantic suggestion). So you will have to judge how I've dealt with the various yellows, blues, greens and other colours that JKR is so fond of - especially pink (the Romans invented the word - it comes from puniceus, the Carthaginian/Punic colour - which was the result of dyeing cloth with a sea mollusc whose identity is now unknown! But it was the "purple" of the emperors - inappropriate surely for a blush or or Dudley's baby photos!)

And also noises: an ancient Greek got by with one or two words which did duty for every kind of noise from a snap to a crackle to a pop to a bang to a rustle to a toot to a creak to a clunk to a click - this makes life difficult, and I had to avoid over-using comparisons with Mount Etna - probably the only really loud noise ever heard in the ancient world! Somewhat bathetically, I do use it for the wizard cracker in chapter 12 which "went of with blast like a cannon". But we just take it for granted in English how many words we have for different kinds and intensities of sound.

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July 21, 2004


I just added two new blogs to my blogroll: Bjørn Stærk and Baltic Blog. They are both great bloggers in their own right, but added to that is the fun of seeing the world from a different geographical perspective. In particular, I am interested in what I call fringe countries – countries that don’t fit into a super-national grouping (like Europe or Latin America) and aren’t big enough to be their own group (like the US, Japan, or China). Israel is a fringe county. So is Iceland. Finland is too, I was looking for a good Finnish blog for a while, and though Bryan Ashcroft helped me look, I didn’t find any. Well, now I have a blog from Estonia, which may be equally fringe (I don’t know yet). If you know of any good fringe-country blogs, please tell me about them!

Bjørn writes about Norway’s love-hate relationship with the US:

Also don't miss the story of how a travel article Bawer wrote for the New York Times in 2001, unremarkable except for a few unfavorable references to the level of service at the Norwegian farm he'd stayed at, made big news in Norway. Aftenposten's Washington correspondent Morten Fyhn wrote a front page story about it, the grumpy farmer became a media hero when he struck back at rude, vulgar Americans who came to his farm expecting McDonalds burgers. Morten Fyhn dug up a critical article on Norway's social democracy that Bawer had written for Cato, and could triumphantly reveal that Bawer "isn't just unhappy with the service in Flatdal, he dislikes most things about Norway". The image of the vulgar, fast-food eating American had been complemented by that of a "thundering", "condescending" conservative. A real farce.

My solution: First, admit to ourselves that the US is a great culture, with great art, learning and science. Second, to stop being so damn preoccupied with it and start building our own, even greater culture. Not just so we can win a p***ing context. Not a culture defined against whatever the Americans do, while copying them badly, but one that learns from what Americans do right, ignore all the rest, and politely try to outperform them at their own game. Embrace the America dominated global culture with all the awe it deserves - then set about to improve it.

You can find some of the same attitudes among some Israelis. The interesting thing is that it’s most prominently displayed on the far left – the same people who seem to hate Israeli culture too. Bjørn is right. The ones with the most respect for their own culture have least trouble liking another culture. The problem is that the left has purposely alienated themselves from humanity. They are alienationals. Maoz Azaryahu:

While most of the public is "national," the elite minority is what I call "alienational." Alienation is a built-in part of the Left. And what they're alienated from is common sense. Why does every peddler in the market understand more than many intellectuals? You could say that it's because the Left is evil. This isn't true. You could say that it's because the Left is stupid. Also not true. The problem is not with the "sense" - it's with the "common."

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Sorry about the lack of posts recently. I have to thank Amritas for leaving a link to me at the top of his blog while he went on vacation – I really do appreciate it! But, while I might presume to be as prolife as he, I am nowhere near as prolific, and the stress of being temporarily orphaned by my children hasn’t helped!

I hope to be back to my usual blog-gone self soon.

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They made it

Just spoke to my family. They made it. The flight was long and uneventful.

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They’re gone

They’re gone. I put them in a taxi at 2:00 AM last night. It’s a sad day in the Boxenhorn house. I can say that with certainty, since I am now the only one in it. The reality struck home as I was saying goodbye to the kids.

This morning I woke up on my own, with no little heads in my armpits, no crick in the neck. Nobody who needed to get off to school, or to camp, or who wanted breakfast, or to play. It was awful.

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July 20, 2004


Amritas is going on vacation today. In an odd case of synchronicity, my family are too. Everyone but me, I’ll be joining them August 10. I’m left alone with nothing to do but sleep and work. In some ways I’m looking forward to it – it’s been years since I have gotten enough sleep (anyone with small children will know what I mean). I’m also looking forward to getting a lot of work done. But I miss them already, and they’re not even gone yet.

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July 19, 2004

Learning Arabic at the DLI

According to About.com (via Amritas):

DLI [Defense Language Institute – DB] teaches Modern Standard Arabic, a refined form of the language that is spoken throughout the Middle East, Campbell said. Learning MSA gives students the foundation upon which they can then build their skills in the various regional and national dialects of the language.

As one who has learned a spoken Arabic dialect (note I said learned, not knows – I took a one semester class in the Jerusalem dialect of spoken Arabic, not more than one hour a day of instruction), I have to disagree with this approach. If the purpose is to learn a spoken dialect, the easiest way to do it is to learn it directly. Learning MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) you spend most of the time on its incredibly complex grammar. But the local dialects have lost most of its complexity. I found that after one semester of a not-so-serious course, I could understand quite a lot of the Arabic spoken around me. I was quite surprised at this – at the time I theorized that having no written form, day-to-day speech was therefore simpler.

The dialect situation is also not so bad. Most Arabs speak one of two sets of mutually intelligible dialects, usually called Western and Eastern. Western includes the dialects of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Eastern includes Egypt, the Levant, and Iraq. I don’t know about the situation on the Arabian Peninsula, but I’m sure that a small number of well-chosen dialects would cover the whole area.

If your goal is to “build their skills in the various regional and national dialects of the language”, it shouldn’t be too hard to do so directly.

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Profiles of Profiling

I just read a frightening story (via Civilization Calls). It would have made excellent fiction, but as far as I can tell, it was true.

As we sat waiting for the plane to finish boarding, we noticed another large group of Middle Eastern men boarding. The first man wore a dark suit and sunglasses. He sat in first class in seat 1A, the seat second-closet to the cockpit door. The other seven men walked into the coach cabin. As aware Americans, my husband and I exchanged glances, and then continued to get comfortable. I noticed some of the other passengers paying attention to the situation as well. As boarding continued, we watched as, one by one, most of the Middle Eastern men made eye contact with each other. They continued to look at each other and nod, as if they were all in agreement about something. I could tell that my husband was beginning to feel anxious.

The take-off was uneventful. But once we were in the air and the seatbelt sign was turned off, the unusual activity began. The man in the yellow T-shirt got out of his seat and went to the lavatory at the front of coach -- taking his full McDonald's bag with him. When he came out of the lavatory he still had the McDonald's bag, but it was now almost empty. He walked down the aisle to the back of the plane, still holding the bag. When he passed two of the men sitting mid-cabin, he gave a thumbs-up sign. When he returned to his seat, he no longer had the McDonald's bag.

Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled in cloth. He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object. Five minutes later, several more of the Middle Eastern men began using the forward lavatory consecutively. In the back, several of the men stood up and used the back lavatory consecutively as well.

As a Middle Easterner myself, I was taken aback at the security measures in the US the first time I visited after 9/11 – about nine months later. I was traveling with my wife and children, what I would expect to be a particularly unlikely profile for a terrorist. Nevertheless, we were subjected to thorough searches every time we boarded a plane – quite a few times, since we made 5 trips within the US. Let me make it clear, though I did find the searches annoying, I don’t consider them to be a violation of my civil rights. The humorous part was that every time we were told we had been randomly selected for extra security procedures. With such luck maybe I should be playing the lottery!

The not-so-humorous part was the incompetence of the checks. I suppose the good part was the national (not ethnic!) profiling – our tickets were bought in Israel, but I should hope that Saudi Arabians and Egyptians were subjected to similar treatment. The scary part was that they relied solely on brute-force searches, not using too much brute-force either. The people doing the searches were clearly minimally trained, and following a script.

In contrast Israelis, who have successfully kept terrorists out of their planes for decades, rely primarily on psychological profiling. They interview everyone who boards a plane. The specific answers to their questions are less important than how the questions are answered. Human beings have a sixth sense for suspicious behavior – a sense, which like other senses, can be trained. Unfortunately, it is a process that relies on ad-hoc behavior is not amenable to fixed procedures. They look for two types of people: terrorists (of course) and dupes. My impression is that a lot more innocent people look like dupes than like terrorists, but it is a real threat, as was shown in the Hindawi case, where a terrorist sent his pregnant girlfriend on a plane with a suitcase concealing a bomb. (The girlfriend was quite upset when she found out about it.)

I have frequently traveled in and out of Israel, and frequently gone through the procedures. I had my suitcase searched only once, when I was young and innocent. (It was a much more pleasant experience than the US experience, since the Israelis have you open and unpack your own suitcase, while they watch.) It suggests that with a little intelligence the following is unnecessary, but can Americans do it?

No one checked the folds in my newspaper or the contents of my son's backpack... or what we carried on board a 757 jet liner bound for American's largest metropolis.

UPDATE: Mark Steyn comments. How much training should you need to be suspicious of this behavior:

On August 1st, James Woods, the motion picture actor, was flying from Boston to Los Angeles. With him in the first class cabin were half-a-dozen guys, four of whom were young Middle Eastern men. Woods, like all really good actors, is a keen observer of people, and what he observed as they flew west persuaded him they were hijackers. The FBI has requested that he not reveal all the details, but he says he asked the flight attendant if he could speak to the pilot. After landing at LAX, the crew reported the incident to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA did …nothing. Two of the four were on board the September 11th planes. Woods turned out to be sitting in on a rehearsal for the big day.

After 9/11, the standard line was that Osama bin Laden had pulled off an ingenious plan. But he didn’t have to be ingenious, just lucky. And he was luckiest of all in that the obviousness of what was happening paradoxically made investigating it all the more problematic. His agents aren’t that smart – not in the sense of IRA smart, or Carlos the Jackal smart. The details Woods is permitted to discuss are in themselves very revealing: The four men boarded with no hand luggage. Not a thing. That’s what he noticed first. Everyone going on a long flight across a continent takes something: a briefcase, a laptop, a shopping bag with a couple of airport novels, a Wall Street Journal or a Boston Herald.

But these boys had zip. They didn’t use their personal headsets, they declined all food and drink, they did nothing but stare ahead to the cockpit and engage in low murmurs in Arabic. They behaved like conspirators. And Woods was struck by the way they treated the stewardess: “They literally ignored her like she didn't exist, which is sort of a kind of Taleban, you know, idea of womanhood, as you know, not even a human being.”

UPDATE: Amritas comments.

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July 18, 2004

Religion and Marriage

It seems everyone’s talking about religion. Steven Den Beste posts about marriage – who should be allowed to marry whom. I don’t think that marriage has any meaning outside of religion, as defined in the previous post (i.e. a system of values). Therefore, I think that the government should get out.

I think it will end up this way anyway. Once we start tampering with the marriage laws, it will indeed be a slippery slope. A particular religion has no problem defining what marriage is, but a government trying to satisfy all definitions will. The next obvious target is polygamy. I think there are more Moslems in the world than homosexuals. Why should we infringe upon a Moslem’s right to polygamy? And how about polyandry? There are a lot less polyandrous societies, but it is by no means unknown. Etc.

Actually, we have this problem already today. A Catholic who gets divorced and remarried can be recognized as married to one person by the Church, and another under US law. Why bother? The US government can create a value-neutral legal definition called, say, civil union, with laws to regulate it, and let the various religions (and non-religions) battle it out on the marriage question.

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Theology and Values

One of the big differences between Christianity and Judaism is in theology. While Christians have (what seems to me as) very complex beliefs about the nature of God, Jews believe simply that God is unknowable. On the other hand, Jews do believe they know what God wants us to do, i.e. what our values should be.

I have often contended (so far not on this blog) that every religion has its own definition of religion. But it seems to me that all religions extol a system of values – so this is perhaps our best definition of it. However, this does cause some problems for US law – all of which are solvable. As I have said before, it means that we cannot teach values without teaching religion, so the government monopoly on education is unconstitutional. It also means that the government should get out of the marriage business. In fact, the only values that the government should explicitly institutionalize are those that are specified in its constitution.

Okay, maybe I’m going too far. Murder and theft are not unconstitutional in the US; neither is driving through a red light. (Though the constitution does give the government the right to regulate commerce.) But I certainly do think that in cases where organized religions (or even unorganized religions – groups of people who have common values) have differing opinions on social institutions, the government should get out of the way.

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Faith and Reason – Part 2

Amritas responds to Faith and Reason (part 1) while I’m offline, and before I can post even once, he posts 11 more times! (Is Amritas going postal?) In any case, I will now belatedly respond to his response. Amritas thinks:

that humans make meaning. I believe that life should have (as opposed to "has") meaning, so I create my own mission which may or may not match anyone else's.

That begs the question: Can I choose any meaning I want – and it will be meaningful? How about watching TV? Can I dedicate my life to watching TV, and have a meaningful life? Some of you will think: If it’s meaningful to you, why not? Well then, how about killing Jews? Hitler went to the grave consoled by the fact that though he didn’t succeed in conquering the world, at least he destroyed European Jewry. Now I hear you say: It was meaningful, in a bad way.

I can agree with these sentiments, but it implies at least one of these articles of faith:

1. Some things are meaningful, others not.
2. Some things are good, others bad.

So we’re back to faith. (As an aside, I am exploring the idea that only the first is true: That bad things have no lasting impact – are ultimately not meaningful – and the fate of bad people, to the extent that they are bad, is to have their memory erased, while good people, to the extent that they are good, will live forever.)

What makes something meaningful? I think that most people would agree that doing something meaningful means advancing, in some way our “core values” – those values that are most fundamental (as opposed to secondary values which we hold because they promote our core values). Where do our core values come from? Again, faith. After several months of (religiously) reading Amritas’s blog, I would say that he has quite a complex network of faith, which he sums up with the word: prolife. It just so happens that some people call their faith a religion, and others don’t.

Speaking for myself, I “know” what is meaningful, even though I don’t know why it is meaningful. But I must believe that it is meaningful for some reason, perhaps incomprehensible to me. To believe that we are free to choose a meaning is to me the same as saying there is no meaning at all, merely human attempts at self-deception.

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July 16, 2004

Broken Windows

Steven Den Beste posts about appearance and reality with respect to the war on terror in Iraq. Steven points out that appearances is one of the main battlegrounds of the war on terror.

Sometimes appearances do ultimately matter more [than reality – DB]. If your enemies can control the perception of your success so that it is widely viewed as a failure, that can have severe consequences. Hence the incessant drumbeat of quagmire! quagmire! quagmire! played by those who want us to lose this war, or who have other reasons for wanting it to look as if we are losing this war.

Caroline Glick, in the Jerusalem Post, agrees:

In a fight in Najaf, US forces fought terrorists in a pitched battle that lasted six hours in order to prevent the enemy from taking hold of a burning Humvee. As one of the officers put it, "We weren't going to let them dance on it for the news. Even with all the guys they lost that day, that still would have given them a victory."

Well, at least they know what they’re fighting for!

Steven also claims that the main goal of the war in Iraq had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, but building democracy in the Arab Middle East.

WMDs were never the real purpose of the invasion. WMDs were the focus of the spotlight, however, because of serious diplomatic efforts to gain UNSC approval for an invasion. Within the context of the UNSC, the only way to justify an invasion was to claim that Iraq had not fully cooperated with UN inspectors. Which, despite what Kevin would like to pretend, Saddam's government had not, even as late as March 2003.

But the public justification made in the UN had nothing to do with the real purpose, the real strategic goal which required the invasion. Kevin makes casual reference to that, when he says, Facts on the ground have never been allowed to interfere with George Bush's worldview, and he wasn't about to take the chance that they might interfere with his war.

Except that "facts on the ground" did not interfere or contradict the real purpose, which was to depose a corrupt dictator and to "nation build" so as to make one core Arab nation a better place for the people living there. By so doing, the goal was to infect the imaginations and aspirations of the citizens in other nations in the region, to "destabilize" the corrupt dictatorships in charge and to try to bring about long term change to the whole region. And that could not be publicly proclaimed at the time without deeply imperiling the strategy for the overall war.

I mildly disagree with this analysis. Rather, I think this was a secondary consideration. The primary consideration was the strategy that Rudolph Giuliani used to combat crime in New York City, with remarkable success, often called the Broken Windows theory.

I remember New York in the 70s and early 80s. It was a frightening place. I visited again recently, and was amazed at the difference. You used to see signs of crime, and crime itself, everywhere. When asked about it, the police would say that they don’t have time or resources for the minor crimes – they have to focus on the big ones.

My summation of the Broken Windows theory is: When you see a criminal, get him. No matter if he has done nothing more serious than breaking a window. And if you can’t get the criminal, at least fix the window!

And it worked. There are several related reasons for this. Crime is caused not just by individuals acting alone, but by an environment that encourages it. Also, criminals are interconnected. The window-breaker is also likely to be a purse-snatcher. The purse-snatcher is also likely to be a murderer. In other words, the best way to fight crime is to grab any opportunity that happens to come up.

That’s why Bush attacked Iraq, rather than Iran or North Korea, which admittedly are even more dangerous. By getting Iraq we didn’t get the worst terrorist regime, but we got the third worst, not bad. A huge step forward in the war on terror.

To sum up the Broken Windows theory of terror: When you can get a terrorist, get him. The best way to fight terror is to grab any opportunity that happens to come up.

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Trackback from annika's journal, He Said What i Been Saying, Only Better:
If i might be allowed to boast a little, in a blog post yesterday, Steven Den Beste articulates what i've been trying to tell people about the Iraq War for two years now. Summed up in my most pithy way:...


I just heard a fun word on TV. It’s an Hebraized English word, which I heard in the context of a movie review (the movie was Shrek 2). I heard the word in two forms: hadibuv and ham’dab’vim (the dibuv, the m’dab’vim). The word has been neatly fit into the paradigm pi`el by adding a third letter to the two already present in the English word (I have posted before on how that’s done). What makes it fun is that if I didn’t know English, I would have assumed that it was formed by changing the last letter of the root of dibur – speaking, since it’s semantically close.

Can you guess the English word?

Continue reading "Dibuv"

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Trackback from annika's journal, He Said What i Been Saying, Only Better:
If i might be allowed to boast a little, in a blog post yesterday, Steven Den Beste articulates what i've been trying to tell people about the Iraq War for two years now. Summed up in my most pithy way:...

July 15, 2004

Israeli CPI

By way of comparison, here are the components of the Israeli CPI, from the Bank of Israel. Unfortunately I can’t find the sub-components, and they don’t break out alcohol and tobacco consumption. But the health and education figures look normal, even though they are provided by the government.

01 Food (excluding fruit & vegetables) 13.48
02 Fruit & vegetables 3.51
03 Housing 23.16
04 Housing maintenance 9.75
05 Furniture & home equipment 4.75
06 Clothing & footwear 2.90
07 Education, culture & entertainment 12.93
08 Health 4.85
09 Transport & communications 20.26
10 Miscellaneous 4.41

UPDATE: Oops. I copied the health figure wrong; I fixed it (I had written 12.93 by mistake). So the health figure does look pretty low. I guess it doesn’t include government contributions – assuming it reflects consumer spending at all.

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Faith and Reason

Amritas writes about this Cox & Forkum cartoon:

It's ironic that the Religious Rightists who like it are not exactly advocates of reason, but I'm used to their inconsistency by now. Moore is wrong not because he believes, but because he believes in the 'wrong' things.

[Cf. the anti-Muslims who do not challenge faith, but merely challenge faith in Allah. Or the anti-Chomskyans who reject Noamuhammadism while advocating their own linguistic religion. Poisons change; toxicity remains.]

My readers know that I agree with Amritas about many things, but this is not one of them. Existence is fundamentally inexplicable through reason (see Pixy Misa for a variety of reasonable postulates, also two of my recent posts). We all have faith in something – it’s just that some people won’t admit it, or perhaps they don’t know themselves well enough to know what it is.

However, faith may or may not be compatible with reason. The question here is: Is your faith logical? Some people believe that that is something that even God can’t change. While I’m not so sure, I do have faith that in this world, at least, logic is true, and therefore my faith has to be logical to be correct.

For me, personally, my faith starts with the belief that life has meaning. I know, this is a self-centered belief – I believe it because I need to believe it – but I think that I am not alone in this need. These two postulates, “life has meaning,” and “the world is logical” can actually take us incredibly far. For example, they imply monotheism. If there is more than one god, then there is more than one meaning to life – reductio ad absurdum – more than one meaning is meaningless. (If there is more than one god, but only one meaning, then let’s just call the gods powerful beings, and call the source of meaning God!)

UPDATE: If your faith is not logical, come right out with it and admit that you reject logic – otherwise, be prepared for it to be used against you!

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Icelandic CPI

Bjarni Ólafsson posts the components of the Icelandic CPI on his blog, and asks the question, “Is it a sham?” Well, I took a look at them, and have concluded that it is, but not for the reason Willy Sutton thinks. Since it is easy to lose the forest for the trees in such things, (though sometimes you have to look a the trees to see the forest, I don’t have time for that at the moment) I copied out the category headers to get an overall understanding. Here they are:

01 Food and non-alcoholic beverages 15.2
02 Alcoholic beverages, tobacco 4.0
03 Clothing and footwear 5.6
04 Housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels 22.0
05 Furnishing, household equipment etc. 5.7
06 Health 3.9
07 Transport 14.5
08 Communications 3.1
09 Recreation and culture 13.7
10 Educational services 0.6
11 Hotels, cafés and restaurants 5.4
12 Miscellaneous goods and services 6.5

Before I go on, it is important to know that in order for the CPI to be meaningful, it has to roughly represent the buying habits of the public. As an example, suppose the price of movies suddenly goes up ten times. Has your buying power decreased? That depends on whether you go to movies or not. If so, by how much? By the percentage of your income that you usually spend on movies. You may note that there is a problem here – if the prices of movies go up ten times, you will surely substitute some other form of entertainment for movies, so your buying power will be impacted less than it otherwise would be. However, in the real world prices don’t usually change that fast, and this problem can be addressed by updating the components of the CPI from time to time. (On the other hand, this is a big factor in cross-country comparisons. It is the reason why cost of living in third-world counties is often calculated to be astronomically high – a western bundle of goods is imposed on a country when anyone actually living there would consume a totally different bundle of goods.)

Getting back to our data, the first thing I noticed was category 02. Do Icelanders really spend 4% of their income on alcohol and tobacco? Almost as much as clothing and footwear? More than health? And what about educational services – only 0.6%? Something is wrong. Then I realized, of course, health and education are provided “free” by the government! But they are not really free, someone is paying for them, but can we know how much? Maybe we should include the amount the government spends on these services per capita?

Then I realized that there’s a much better way, an item that really impacts people’s buying power directly – and accounts not only for health and education, but for many other things as well. What should be category lucky-13 of the Icelandic CPI?

UPDATE: Bjarni responds.

Continue reading "Icelandic CPI"

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July 14, 2004

Finished beginning the whole thing

Well I finished reading Pixy Misa’s post on thought, which it turns out is just the beginning of whole thing – evidently an encyclopedic survey, or a new form of water torture.

First of all, I must say that it’s beautifully written, a very enjoyable read. He walks us through solipsism, materialism, naturalism, and idealism:

Plato was, if not the first Idealist, then the one who gave Idealism structure as a philosophy. Plato thought that everything that exists in this world is merely an imperfect representation of an ideal version that exists elsewhere. So there was, for example, an ideal chair somewhere, that was a perfect example of chairness, more chairlike than any real chair could be, and every chair that we can actually sit on (or in my case, pile books on) is really just a shadow of that ideal chair. And the same applies to, for example, cows: Somewhere beyond the reality that we know exists a perfect, flawless cow, unsurpassed in its cowness, its moo more purely moolike, and its milk more milky, than any moo or milk in our mundane world.

Now this is an interesting idea (so to speak), because ideals really do exist – but not in an ideal world. Ideas exist in our minds. We use ideas to understand the world. Each of us has an ideal chair – in our minds. When we have to understand something for which there are no ideals we make them up. Another name for ideals are words.

Continuing on, we visit Berkeley – which we learn doesn’t really exist except as a bundle of ideas, which come from Mind. (The absence of an article is not a typo.) A theory that can be disputed easily if you have the willpower:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."

We then come to Dualism:

Dualism is called that because it assumes two things, two separate and non-interacting worlds, those of matter and spirit. This in itself makes Dualism a weaker theory than the ones we have previously discussed. We noted that we need to make an assumption to move beyond Solipsism and so make an attempt at understanding our existence, so we have no grounds for arguing against Materialism or Naturalism or Idealism simply on the grounds that they make an unfounded assumption. An unfounded assumption is required.

Dualism, though, chooses to make two unfounded assumptions, that the material Universe exists (the same as Materialism), and that an Immaterial or Spirit Universe also exists - and that they don't interact at all. After all, if the Spirit interacted with the Material, we could detect and influence and control it... In which case it would simply be an unusual variety of matter, and not spirit at all.

The problem with this is that Dualists give Spirit as their explanation for the human mind. And we know that the human mind interacts with the material world - it receives information from the senses and controls the actions of the body. So the Spirit and the Material never interact at all - except in the Mind, which is in some mystical way different from everything else in the Universe.

In other words, Dualists are really Troilists; their three assumptions are the separate existence of Spirit and Matter and Mind as a bridge between the two. You can't prove this sort of thing to be wrong, because it's assumptions all the way down. We can see, however, that it's not particularly useful. If, rather than explaining how something came to be in terms of something you already know, you simply wave your arms and cry That's the way it is! then you haven't really contributed anything to human understanding.

The strength of Dualism is that is describes the way most people feel – that their identity (spirit) is somehow independent of their material being. How can consciousness arise out of mere material?

Well, though I read the whole post, I have to stop here. I’m too tired to deal with the rest, which is much more complex than what we’ve covered so far. Read it yourself.

However, I just want to say one thing before I sign off. What I want to know about existence is not what or how many things it’s made of. I want to know if it means anything. Where does meaning come from? Where could it possibly come from? That, I think, is a question that is unanswerable not because it is unprovable, but because it is unimaginable.

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What’s wrong with this picture?

David Warren comments on the Soviet-style reporting of the media:

From each word picture, the reader must guess what has been left out. Since it's often the same obvious thing that was omitted from the last word picture, many readers have little difficulty supplying the missing link for themselves. But many more are confused.

The media seldom make anything up; they seldom add anything imaginary; and they seldom remove anything -- except the obvious. Perhaps this will become clearer by using a big example.

The U.S. and Israel have mortal enemies. Every living American, and Jew, is at personal risk because of it. That much is obvious. But airbrush that reality out of every picture, and a lot of American and Israeli behaviour becomes incomprehensibly malicious.

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July 13, 2004

Pixy Misa’s thoughts on thought

My benevolent host, and guardian of my blog assets, has posted his thoughts on thought. Sample:

Unfortunately, there are only two things that we can know for certain, without any possibility of question.

First, we know that we exist. That is, I know that I exist. I don't know for certain that you exist, but you know that you exist

The second thing we know is that we are receiving information.

The nearest ship is a round, black vessel, with no windows or portholes, sitting low in the water. Its stern - as much as it can be said to have such a thing - bears the name Solipsism.

Solipsism is a belief that the only thing we know for certain is that we exist. Taken to an extreme, solipsism can say that only I exist (there's no "we" in this form of solipsism). The problem with this is that it is not an attempt at understanding, but an admission of disinterest. And of course we already know this anyway. We don't need to bother with solipsism, because everything it can tell us is already wrapped up neatly in our two axioms.

I haven’t finished reading it yet; I’ll have to go back a few more times.

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July 12, 2004

Icelandic Islam

Here’s one for the Great Auk. What do you think of this, by Anna Linda Traustadóttir an Icelandic-Syrian Muslim woman?

I've also since got some new Muslim girlfriends over the Internet. Whilst searching the net, I came across an Icelandic Muslim site: www.islam.is, and I contacted the writer. We started a correspondence. Around New Year's 2004, I sent her a report I wrote entitled "Islam in Iceland 2003," which I am submitting to the Saudi Government, she suggested we three work on the translation of the Qur'an from Arabic to Icelandic (Kóraninn), as she also speaks Arabic. So it seems that we will be three Icelandic Muslim women working on translating the Arabic Qur'an. For those of you looking for a good English version, I’ve heard the Muhammad Asad translation is also very direct, but I myself have yet to get hold of it.

I’d also really like to know what you think of that Icelandic Islamic site – Iceland is so small, that if you don’t know these people personally, you surely know people who know them.

UPDATE: Bjarni responds. Excerpt:

The thing is that Iceland has the same problem as many western countries – rising anti-semitism disguised as criticism of the Israeli government. Talk for more than a couple of minutes with these people (more on the left than the right, but there are lots of anti-Israelites on the right as well), and they start telling you how the Jews control America, they control American TV and Hollywood, they control the IMF and the World Bank etc. etc.

I just thought it was jarring and exotic to think of Islam in Iceland. More:

There is a term often used here, barnatrú, or child’s faith. This is the faith that you take with you into adulthood from the time you were a child. This is often a rather generalized version of Christianity, you don’t qoute chapter and verse, but you know your stories and the morals of the faith and you consider yourself a Christian. This is, I think, one reason why many Icelandic Christians have no problems with single mothers or homosexuality – it may contradict some verses in the Bible, but it isn’t in conflict with the more basic, maybe naive, barnatrú.

I, for example, consider myself Christian. I don’t go to church, and I have never read the Bible from cover to cover. My barnatrú tells me that God isn’t going to punish me for using the reason or conscience that He gave me and I trust those better than most single bible verses.

I find this interesting because in Judaism there’s an oral tradition – the Talmud – alongside the written tradition – the Bible – which interprets it in sometimes surprising ways. But in Judaism it is this tradition that is considered correct. Is the Talmud the record of the Jewish barnatrú?

UPDATE: Amritas tells us the etymology of barnatrú. I was wondering about that.

UPDATE: Bjarni responds again.

UPDATE: Bjarni answers Amritas.

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Jews and Arabs

I was entertained by this reminiscence by Ray Hanania:

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. In fact, many Arabs I knew grew up in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, because Arabs and Jews actually have much in common. And were it not for the Arab-Israeli wars, we would have had a fine existence together, eating the same foods, sharing the same ties to biblical history (my last name is a Hebrew word that means "God has been Gracious"), and boasting the same kind of overbearing mothers.

He tells how Jews and Arabs fought for American support on university campuses:

The Jewish students would try to do it by organizing festivals recognizing Israel's independence every May. They'd hold rallies at the Circle Forum, where they would sing folk songs, hold candlelight vigils, recite poetry, hold hands and dance, and eat "Israeli foods" like wariq duwally, felafil, and humos.

The Arab students would do it by organizing "Palestine Day" protests -- marking the day the Israelis tookover Palestine -- and surrounding the Jewish students. They waved placards written in Arabic, chanted Marxist slogans, embraced weird organizations, and slung angry epithets at the Jewish students.

And what it means to be an Arab reporter:

Arabs dislike reporters. That's because there is no such thing as true journalism in the Middle East. Arabs hate to admit it, but journalists in the Arab world are synonymous with political hacks, government shills employed by government-controlled newspapers and television and radio stations that are filled with government-controlled propaganda, high with emotion and nearly always wrong.

He also spreads a few lies (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s misinformed. Israeli Arabs openly support our enemies without retribution.)

While the Arabs have stringent controls over their media, so do the Israelis, who impose harsh censorship on the Arab press. They frequently jail Arab reporters, another reason to stay out of the business.

He asks hard questions:

Eban was born "Aubrey Solomon" in Cape Town, South Africa. My dad was born in Jerusalem. "How come you can go to Jerusalem anytime you want and become a citizen of Israel, and I can't?" I asked.

But doesn’t wait for an answer:

There are over three million Jews in Israel from Arab countries (including their descendents) how come they can’t go back? There are thousands of Jews born and raised in Gaza and the West Bank, how come they have no right to live there when millions of Arabs who have never lived there claim that right?

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Heroic Struggle

I came across an old post by Kim du Toit about his visit to Dachau. In light of yesterday’s post, I was struck by this comment:

Only two barrack buildings remain. The other thirty are marked simply by their foundations, which are all that remain. They are laid out in orderly rows, like huge gravestones, which is what they really are. The buildings are gone, and now, most of their inhabitants are gone too. The fortunate ones died early, the less-fortunate ones died after years of pain and torment, and the very fortunate ones were liberated by the U.S. Army.

Do you want to be fortunate and give up?

Or keep going and suffer years of pain and torment?

And perhaps live to be free (though the odds are against you)?

Or maybe… you can escape?

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July 11, 2004

Israel's tax burden among highest in West

What we are up against:

Israel's tax burden is among the highest in the West, reaching 39.1% of GDP, compared with 32.5% among developing countries and the OECD average of 36.9%.
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Opportunity Knocks

Life is chaos. Or, as Forrest Gump would say, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get.

Amritas discovers (from Mark Evanier):

1. The system is not fair.
2. It's never going to be fair.
3. You have two choices: Play under the system, as it is, or get out.
4. If it should happen to pay off, it pays off big.

This is especially evident in show business – and entrepreneurship – and, I suppose, many other professions. Only a few (doctors and accountants come to mind) have a clear path to success, if you can climb it. In general, entrepreneurship has the same problem as show business:

Show Business purports to be a meritocracy, which means that everyone gets rewarded according to their abilities. The trouble is that it's a meritocracy wherein, as William Goldman has noted, Nobody knows anything.

It's all a matter of educated guesses, hunches, whims, wishful thinking and, often, someone making the choice that they're least likely to be blamed for if there's a train wreck. This doesn't mean that a person's track record and skills count for nothing. It just means that the people who do the choosing -- who decide who gets what job, who gets to be a movie star, whose screenplay get filmed -- sometimes pick wrong. Sometimes, they aren't even sure what they want and it turns into a game of eenie-meenie-minie-mo.

In fact, the best ideas are the ones nobody gets – how many people would get the World Wide Web, before it was the World Wide Web? Evanier again:

Often, in order to reach the kind of non-creative folks who invariably wind up in the jobs where they say yea or nay to your creative ideas, you have to tap dance. You explain your idea in terms of something they've seen, something that's a proven success. That way, they at least have a reference point...a precedent of some security.

The best ideas are the ones that can’t be explained “in terms of something they’ve seen”.

In any case my advice is this: Know yourself. Define your goals as broadly as possible. Have as many goals as possible. Keep an open mind.

And most of all: When opportunity knocks – open the door!

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July 10, 2004

The Security Myth

Security is a big deal in my business – software. Most of the time when people talk about the issue, they use the terms “secure” or “insecure”. They ask, “How can I make this secure?” or “is this secure?” Well, the answer is no. Nothing is ever secure. Think about software security like the security of your house: is it secure? Well, it’s pretty secure, but if someone really wanted to… What about your bank? More secure. What about the White House? Etc. There are lots of ways to make things more secure: walls, guards, cameras, but you can never be sure when someone will think of a way to break in, or when someone will make a mistake that lets someone in. The only thing you can be sure of is that lots of people are trying to break into lots of places, and sometimes they will succeed. The missing ingredient is policing. You can’t think of security as a static thing – put up your defenses and rest securely – you have to think of it as an ongoing battle, that sometimes you’ll lose.

I was thinking of these things while reading Ten lessons to take away from Iraq (via Amritas). I disagree, more or less, with all ten. Many of them were truisms, like “ideology makes a poor substitute for strategy” or “wars leave loose ends” others were misleading, like “the myth of American casualty aversion is just that” and “so too with the myth of an American genius for spreading democracy” still others were simply untrue, like “Israel’s war is not our war”. All explicitly criticize the policies of the Bush administration. The fact is that for the first time in decades, terrorism is on the retreat. We will never “win” the war against terrorism in the sense that it will disappear completely – have we “won” the war against crime? But we can make the world much safer than it is buy making a serious (and continual) effort to combat it. At the present time, most terrorism is state-sponsored, and we know which states they are, the main ones: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia. Since 9/11 we have eliminated three: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. That’s a pretty impressive record, and the results show. Since 9/11 terrorism in Israel is down significantly (by something like 90%), incidentally disproving “lesson 4”.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that Bush is doing a pretty amazing job. He’s done it by pursuing a very politically incorrect policy: eliminating regimes that support terror. In my opinion, his biggest contribution to world progress is breaking that taboo. I don’t know if Iraq will end up democratic, but even a corrupt military dictatorship like Egypt is infinitely better than Saddam’s Iraq. Better, but still less than democracy, would be an authoritarian regime that can lead to democracy, like those that preceded democracy in South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile. The belief that anything less than perfect is failure is, in my mind, another kind of evil.

Take a look at this fiskable claim:

Operation Iraqi Freedom was supposed to finish the job that Bush’s father had left undone in 1991. Oust Saddam Hussein, the war’s supporters promised, and all sorts of good things were sure to follow. War would transform Iraq into the first Arab democracy, usher the Middle East into an era of lasting peace, and nudge Islam toward moderation and modernity. Today, the Ba’athist regime is gone, but none of the predicted benefits seems likely to materialize. Instead the United States has exchanged the limited burdens of containment for the far more onerous burdens of occupation. We have overthrown a tin-pot dictator posing no immediate threat to the United States and thereby energized and encouraged far more dangerous enemies.

It begins with the canard that the Iraq war is some kind of family feud (the Bushes and the Saddams), and continues by dismissing the idea that, “all sorts of good things were sure to follow.” Well, all sorts of good things are following, and I expect it to continue. As I said, all is not perfect, neither do I expect it to be perfect in the future, but “none of the predicted benefits seems likely to materialize” is already false. How can anyone make such an assertion to even a moderately well informed audience? Worse than that is the last sentence, the war has definitely NOT “energized and encouraged far more dangerous enemies”. The enemies of the free world are weakened and discouraged. What energizes and encourages them is the possibility that, having come this far, we might just give up.

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July 08, 2004

The importance of being diverse

I have encountered a link (via John Ray) so important, that for the first time I’ve mirrored it on my own blog. It is a review of The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Of course, having just encountered it, I haven’t (yet) read the book, so what you see here is based on the review.

Based on my posts, many of you have probably decided that I am a libertarian. While I advocate some of the same policies, notably less government intervention, I am not. I might be more aptly described as a diversitarian (I just made that up) – I want to promote the maximum degree of diversity in society, both among individuals and groups. Not only do I think that freedom to pursue diverse goals and lifestyles maximizes happiness, I also think that it is the best recipe for progress (the definition of which itself benefits from diverse thinking). Thus I am not necessarily against government intervention, I am just skeptical of it. I do think there are a fair number of exceptions where government intervention promotes diversity rather than inhibiting it, such as anti-trust laws, one example of where I part ways with libertarians.

Now, I want to be clear that when I speak of diversity, I am primarily talking about diversity of thinking – both rational and intuitive thinking. I suppose genetic diversity is also important, though pigmentation diversity (what you most often hear called diversity) is probably one of the least important of all.

"Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them." This is so even when "most of the people within the group are not especially well-informed or rational." What is wonderful, and surprising, is that "when our imperfect judgments are aggregated in the right way, our collective intelligence is often excellent."
Surowiecki does not make the implausible suggestion that all crowds are wise. To qualify as such, a crowd needs to satisfy three conditions. It must be diverse; its members must be independent; and it must have a "particular kind of decentralization." Each of these conditions is designed to ensure what most interests Surowiecki, which is the emergence and the aggregation of information that group members have. Diversity is important simply to ensure that the group has a lot of information. If a crowd consists of nearly identical people, it is unlikely to be wise, because the group will not know more than the individuals of whom it is composed.

This is why diversity is so important to me. I want to live in a society of diverse individuals and groups. Since so much of who we are is determined in our formative years, and so much of those years is spent in school, I feel it is particularly important to have a diverse school system – not one of government-imposed uniformity. School vouchers would elegantly achieve this goal, because in addition they would give parents the freedom to choose – solving several problems at once. Choice almost universally promotes happiness, welfare, quality and efficiency – in addition to diversity.

The author of the review then goes on to ridicule some of Surowiecki’s conclusions:

Diversity is usually good, above all because it allows groups to acquire more information. But what is needed is not diversity as such, but diversity of the right kind. NASA's judgment would not have been improved if the relevant officials had included members of the Flat Earth Society, or people who believed that aliens are among us or that space flight is simply impossible.

Who will decide what’s the “right kind” of diversity?

What this fails to take into account (as usual) is feedback. Over time, the group will learn who is right and who is wrong, and about which questions. Of course, I don’t expect such a group, if large enough, to ever reach equilibrium. But this lack of equilibrium is a good thing – it shows that given sufficient diversity there’s always something to learn.

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July 07, 2004

The US Constitution – a system

Steven Den Beste posts about the US Constitution. As a systems lover, I have always loved the US Constitution. It is a tremendously elegant solution – it solves a complex problem in a simple way. There are several parts to the problem (which is what makes it complex). The part I want to talk about right now is balancing effectively with democracy.

The problem is this: Being as democratic as possible means involving the most number of people, the most number of opinions, and representing the people as accurately as possible. Being effective requires clearly stated goals, clear lines of authority, and clear accountability. The US addresses this problem though separation of powers – having separately elected legislative and executive branches of government. The legislative branch is optimized branch is optimized for democracy, and the executive branch is optimized for effectiveness.

Usually the separation of powers is presented as a means of preventing tyranny through the creation of separate authorities, which check and balance each other (this discussion also includes the judicial branch, which is not directly relevant to me at the moment), and prevent any one institution from becoming too powerful. It is that too, which is one reason the US Constitution is so elegant.

The parliamentary system is just the opposite. In the parliamentary system, all power rests with parliament. The Prime Minister is “first among equals” – in other words, derives all power from parliament. Parliament is the seat of both legislative and executive power (and in some countries, judicial power as well). Paradoxically, this system tends to concentrate power in the Prime Minister, who is not only the chief executive, but also the chief legislator.

It is interesting that both systems developed from the English parliamentary system. At the time the United States of America was formed, the British system looked remarkably like the US system as specified by the constitution. The King was the chief executive, and Parliament consisted of two chambers: the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The US constitution takes this system and democratizes it. The lower house (Commons in England, Representatives in the US) represents the people in both. The upper house (Lords in England, Senate in US), instead of representing the aristocracy, represents the states. And the inherited position of King becomes the elected position of President. The powers and relationships of the three institutions are essentially the same.

While the US democratized the English system of government, the English systematized the democracy. In England, the democratically elected House of Commons (yes, I know its democracy also developed over time) gradually gained power at the expense of the King and the House of Lords, until today it’s practically all-powerful.

The Israeli system has a different history. Like the US and English systems, it wasn’t created from whole cloth. It derives from the World Zionist Congress. The World Zionist Congress was an umbrella organization for Zionist organizations. (There is some confusion about the meaning of the word Zionist: It means Israeli Patriot.) The British Mandate, and the Turks before them, provided few of the services we usually think of governments providing today: education, health, etc. As a result, the Jews of the area organized what amounted to voluntary governments to provide them. These organizations elected delegates to the World Zionist Congress in proportion to their membership – the “proportional representation system”. After independence, the Israeli parliament was created: the Knesset, and the Zionist organizations became parties. The method of electing Knesset members was the same as the method of electing WZC delegates.

The result was a system which is strikingly ill-suited to governing. (The purpose of the WZC was not to govern.) The fact that it functions at all is testimony to Israelis’ democratic nature. Before I go into details, lets talk about the system’s good points. Almost none of the pre-state parties still survive, one of their few relics is Israel’s two sports leagues: Maccabi and Betar, which were the sport clubs of Mapai (Ben Gurion’s party) and Herut (Begin’s party) respectively. But a myriad of new parties have sprung up, representing a multidimensional range of ideologies. This makes voting a lot more fun, instead of voting for the lesser of two evils, most voters get to choose between several parties that they like. The other thing that makes voting fun is that every vote counts. The more votes your party gets, the greater its representation – it’s not just win/lose. The system can also be said to be more democratic, since a far larger range of voices is heard in Knesset than is heard in the constituency-based US Congress, or British Parliament.

The downside is that the system is tremendously lacking in effectiveness. The major part of the problem is the sheer number of parties – all of which are in an endless battle of shifting alliances, seeking to undermine each other. The primary concern of every Israeli prime minister is holding the governing coalition together. That doesn’t leave much time for everything else, i.e. governing the country. An important, but little-known contributory factor is the fact that Knesset members compete directly with one another in each election, whereas in a constituency system incumbents are united in competing with non-incumbents in the next election, so they can more easily feel like peers, and there is no direct benefit to discrediting your fellow legislator.

It is unfortunate that the proportional representation system should be combined with the parliamentary system. As in the US, it is possible to separate the executive from the legislature, and optimize each in a different way. Israel botched an attempt to do just that a few years ago when it decided to directly elect the Prime Minister – without providing for separation of powers. The result was the worst of both systems – the directly elected Prime Minister found it impossible to govern – and the change was reversed before the last round of elections. I fear that change has been discredited forever, and for the foreseeable future we’ll just have to muddle through.

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July 06, 2004


Amritas makes amends. It’s hard for me to express how weirdly disturbing it was for me to read Brecher. Reading Marxist or Nazi polemics, for instance, is totally different – I might feel disgust, anger, or even fear, but I also find it boring. Perhaps it is because it’s familiar, and totally debunked, any germs of positive originality already adopted by some mainstream, and no longer belonging to their originators.

In contrast, Brecher seems to have a lot of original thoughts worth examining, and many which seem to be illuminating – mixed in with a lot of nonsense, clearly the product of a sick mind out of touch with the world. Am I looking at a would-be Hitler or Mao? We like to portray them as lunatics, but clearly they must have understood a lot about the world in order to achieve power and maintain it. But they were also crazy. Could their theories have been interesting in their time in the same way as Brecher’s?

I did get something from reading Brecher (I read about half of his articles, and I don’t intend to read any more), I quoted one example on this blog before I had grasped the nature of his work as a whole. But that’s because I already have a fairly well developed picture of the subjects he reviews. I can lift his points out of their contexts, and drop them into my own inner context, free of crazy conspiracy theories, and love of gore. For example, he makes a point about primitive (tribal) warfare, and points out that this was the nature of European war as recently as thousand years ago. I already knew that, I just never thought about it quite this way before. The same goes for the quote below – it is common, in the circles I travel in, to point out how the Holocaust was perpetrated by the most “civilized” people in the world, this quote just extends the example to Rwanda. I also think he got half way to the truth in his piece about torture in Iraq. Being a resident of the Middle East, I was able to see where he went wrong. I wonder if he would recognize the truth if he read my post, or would it be unbeautiful to his sick mind?

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July 05, 2004

The War Nerd

Amritas is becoming a fan of Gary Brecher, the War Nerd. After reading his piece on torture, I was going to bring Amritas to task, but then I decided to read some more first, and my reaction is a bit more complex. But don’t forget, the guy’s a sociopath. Just read his self-introduction:

Anyway, war-wise it's been a pretty good year. Let's start with the WTC. Technically that wasn't an act of war, and also it happened last year, but you have to mention it because it was just so beautiful. Come on, be honest, it was beautiful.

It was like a two-course dessert. First there was the towers falling down in slo-mo, over and over. Which was really, really beautiful. Don't tell me you didn't watch them fall about a million times in a row. That was the first time an office building ever got beautiful in the history of the world.

The best war is when you can hate both sides, and that's how it was with the WTC. I cheered those jets. I work in like a ten-story version of those towers, and I know for a fact that I'm not the only one who perks up every time a plane gets close to the building. Everybody cheers the planes now. Until those planes hit the WTC nobody dreamed you could knock down an American corporation building. Nobody ever thought one would come down. And when they did, damn! It was like the noche triste, when Aztecs made the Conquistadors bleed for the first time and said, "Hey these aren't magic six-legged metal monsters, they're just a bunch of victims like us!"

It makes me sick just to have those words in my blog, but I don’t want you to miss them. He does say some insightful things, like my quote from two posts down – he certainly knows something. And he does a good job of making his subject interesting, and brutally honest. But he also loves conspiracy theories, as I point out in the previous post. For example:

Iraq was a fantasy story for Bush's people right from the start. The NeoCon commissars like Perle and Wolfowitz went around saying we'd be "welcomed with open arms" in Baghdad because we were bringing "freedom and democracy," two things that sell worse than women's soccer in the Middle East. I don't know where they got this insane idea. It's got something to do with Israel wanting Iraq out of the way; Perle and Wolfowitz are Israeli/Likud policy wonks from way back.

As if only Israel wanted (Saddam's) Iraq out of the way, and Perle and Wolfowitz were secretly in its employ. And as if nobody in Iraq is cheering democracy, and anyone who does must have some secret agenda.

There's another reason we can't see Iraq as clearly as Afghanistan. More like three reasons tied up in one: Cheney, oil, money. Cheney wants our troops to stick around like unpaid security guards for all his Halliburton kickback cronies while they suck out the crude, drive the price per barrel down, and teach the Saudis some humility.

As if there were no other reason for driving the price of oil down but to line the pockets of Halliburton and settle a personal grudge with the Saudis. Seems Cheney’s pretty loyal to his friends – oh, I forgot, if you believe in conspiracies it’s easy for Cheney to have secret financial ties.

Understand, I don’t have any problem with being interested in war. There’s a lot to be interested in: strategy, tactics, the matching of wits, creative use of resources. But the best part for Gary seems to be the death and misery. The rest is action, since every show has to have a storyline. Take a look at this:

So back to the Merkava. A great design, yes. But the whole greatness of the design advertises the weakness of the Israelis: they don't like taking casualties. You're thinking, "Nobody likes it you jerk!" Except that's totally untrue. Lots of places like taking casualties. The Shiites - they never felt prouder or happier. The Russians under Stalin - they died crying for joy. All you f***ing happy people - you think everybody's like you? Lots of people want to die. I want to die! There's more like me than like you, you smug bastards.

How do I relate to this mix of wisdom, honesty, and malady? I don’t know, but I’m not going back, it makes me sick. All I can say is caveat emptor – buyer beware!

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Backwards on Iraq

After reading the link in the last post, where he talks about the Congo, I had high hopes for Gary Brecher. Then I followed this link from Amritas, where he talks about Iraq, and was disappointed. He said a lot of right things (I’ve had similar experiences with Arab merchants, for example, to the one he describes), but he gets the big picture backwards.

Try thinking about it for a second, actually thinking like an Iraqi guerrilla. You have nothing. You start from scratch. So step one is getting a bomb. That means dealing with a lot of people -- somebody's cousin who stole a couple of mortar shells, or a cop sent out the word he's actually on your side.

Before you even contact this guy you need to know, can you trust him? You don't get a second chance. If you contact him and he's actually working for the occupiers, they'll have you down in the basement with a guy smashing your fingertips with a hammer. Then they'll bring in your wife and start on her.

If you make contact and it goes well -- you get the explosives from him -- you're still a long way from being able to set up the bomb. You still need detonator wire and something like a blasting cap to set it off, so you have to contact another dude, maybe some guy who used to work in the Fallujah Radio Shack. Before you talk to him you need to know.for certain, no second chance, if you can trust him. If you're wrong: basement. Hammer. Fingernails.

So just getting your material is a big, scary step. It involves dozens of people, and if just one of them turns out to be working for the other side, your whole insurgent network will be wiped out before it carries out a single attack. The guy who told you who to contact -- what if they capture him and take him down to the basement? It won't be a nice polite interrogation. It'll be torture.

You can bet we're ready to use torture in Iraq, no matter what the papers say. It's basic practice in counter-insurgency warfare. We probably farm it out to Iraqis so we can deny taking part, but we're doing it.

I don’t believe the Americans are using torture in Iraq, that’s the stuff of conspiracy thinking – in this world such a thing couldn’t remain secret. But the other side can – and I’m sure it does.

Gary, try thinking about it for a second, actually thinking like an Iraqi villager: You may have some opinions, but mostly you just want to live what you’re used to thinking of as a normal life. There are some powerful people in town, powerful because they have guns and are ruthless. They have powerful friends in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia who support them. They know you, and your family, and what you do – everything about you, because you and everyone else in town have lived there for generations. And they won’t wait for proof before they come for you. Any weirdness is suspect. If you’re a little odd, or doing drugs, or suddenly successful in business – it’s because you’re a collaborator.

That’s what gives the terrorists such freedom of movement around Fallujah, and in the Palestinian territories – but not in most of Iraq. The only way to beat it is from the inside; you need to understand the who’s who in the local scene. Israelis, Kurds, and the new central government in Iraq understand this. We can win this war.

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The people who do genocide best

Gary Brecher says something that I want to preserve (via Amritas), so I can think about it. I don’t have anything to say yet.

The Hutu and the Tutsi are real law-abiding, organized people. If you've only heard about them from the genocide news out of Rwanda, that might seem surprising. But...well, to understand this you have to be willing to tell the bitter truth. And here it is: the people who do genocide best are law-abiding, decent, stand-up folks. Strange but true. Take the Germans: wouldn't hurt a fly...unless someone in uniform told them to.
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Boxenhorn’s Razor

In my search yesterday for a good link to go with the statement, “The government that governs best governs least,” I came across several protests that this is a recipe for anarchy. It seems self-evident to me that this statement should not read as an oxymoronic advocacy for no government at all, rather as a recognition that government is a necessary evil which should be kept to a minimum. To dispel all confusion, I would like to propose a principle along the lines of Occam’s razor – not a proof, but an heuristic for making decisions which are usually right.

Occam’s Razor:

Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred.

Boxenhorn’s Razor:

Of two possible solutions to a problem, all other things being equal, the one involving less government is to be preferred.

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July 04, 2004

“The most important thing to encourage growth”

Netanyahu speaks:

"What is the first most important thing a government can do to encourage growth?" asked Netanyahu rhetorically.

"Cut taxes. What is the second most important thing? Lower taxes.

"And the third? Right again – tax reductions."

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Happy Independence Day, USA

I sometimes wonder about the origins of my political orientation. It has changed little during the course of my life – though I should hope that it has matured some. One of the things that made a big impression on me at a young age (I’m not sure if the impression was causal, it might have been) was American history. From 1620 to 1776, many of its most important events occurred around Boston, where I grew up. When I was a kid, the schools made a big deal about local history (I hope they still do today, but I don’t know): The Pilgrims, who sailed to the New World to escape persecution. A City on a Hill. No taxation without representation. Don’t tread on me. The shot heard around the world. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Separation of powers. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The government that governs least governs best. (Oddly, I can’t find a serious link for this last quote.)

My teachers were almost uniformly leftist. In fact, my 7th-grade teacher who introduced me to American history a reasonably serious level, and who was one of my favorite teachers, revealed at the end of the year that she had a goal to convince at least some of the class that the colonists were crazy to rebel against England. While American history was taught with more than a little emphasis on social awareness: slavery, poverty, oppression, the importance of unions, etc., the original messages of the United States founders shone through, at least to me.

This legacy is one of the great strengths of the United States. It is impossible to teach US history without encountering these concepts. Rhetoric to the contrary, the American Revolution was fought by the freest people in the world, against one of the world’s least despotic governments. It is remarkable that Quebec, at the time recently conquered from the French in 1763, refrained from joining the revolution, despite the fact that is was ruled by foreigners.

Unfortunately, Israel has nothing comparable in its history. In Israeli consciousness, overwhelming all is the collective freedom of self-defense. While the American trauma was taxation without representation, the Jewish trauma was helplessness in the face of people trying to kill us. While Americans proclaimed, “Live free or die!” Israelis exalted in the mere chance to fight for their lives. Before the founding of the state, Israel had no history of democracy or even self-government. Immigrants were from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose history was likewise despotic. When the British left, they evacuated. They didn’t leave anything resembling a government, let alone a democratic government, as they did in India and most of their empire. They turned over their military installations to various Arab militias, and left. Under the circumstances, it is remarkable that Israel is a democracy at all, and has been since independence.

To add to the problems, Israel was born at a time when socialism (the real thing, not its red-green-nihilist form of today) was fashionable. Kibbutzim (communes) were the vanguard of the nation, vigorous and entrepreneurial (today, the grandchildren of the founders are dismantling their tired remains). Over a million Jewish refugees, the survivors of concentration camps, and the exiles from Arab regimes, descended on an impoverished population of 600,000. Under such circumstances it is perhaps understandable that the government stepped in to plan the economy, to tax and provide jobs. The bureaucratic infrastructure was already there to build on – the British ruled their colonies though bureaucracy.

Israel is still very much burdened by this legacy – but I predict its eventual demise. It has been weakening markedly since the 1980s, though it is still strong today. In two generations, the state hasn’t been able to extinguish a culture of centuries of self-reliance and independence. Already, in the newer industries, such as high-tech and communications, the culture of innovation has reasserted itself. Older industries, like power generation, the ports, and most of all the government itself, remain to improve. But their time will come, the sooner the better.

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Trackback from trying to grok, CLASS:
My class this weekend was pretty good. We all thought it would focus on the current terrorist events, but instead the prof mostly lectured about terrorism in the 70s and 80s. It was interesting because I didn't know that much...

July 03, 2004

Engels proud not to be Icelandic, Marx not Jewish

Engels is proud not to be Icelandic (via Bjarni Ólafsson):

The Dane regards Germany as a country which one visits in order to ‘keep mistresses and squander one’s fortune on them’ (while travelling in Germany, he had a mistress who ran through the better part of his fortune, we read in a Danish school book). He calls the German a tydsk [German] windbag, and regards himself as the true representative of the Teutonic soul — the Swede in turn despises the Dane as ‘Germanised’ and degenerate, garrulous and effete — the Norwegian looks down on the Gallicised Swede and his aristocracy and rejoices in the fact that at home in Norge [Norway] exactly the same stupid, peasant economy is dominant as at the time of the noble Canute, and he, for his part, is treated en canaille [scornfully] by the Icelander, who still continues to speak exactly the same language as the unwashed Vikings of anno 900, swills whale oil, lives in a mud hut and goes to pieces in any atmosphere that does not reek of rotten fish. I have several times felt tempted to be proud of the fact that I am at least no Dane, nor yet an Icelander, but merely a German.

Marx is not Jewish:

But whether this was the case or not, there can be no doubt that Heinrich Marx had attained that humanistic culture which freed him entirely from all Jewish prejudices, and he handed on this freedom to his son Karl as a valuable heritage. There is nothing in the numerous letters Heinrich Marx wrote to his student son which betrays a trace of any specifically Jewish traits, either good or bad.
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The New Iraq

Amritas doubts the ability of Iraqis to maintain democracy. I have my doubts too. Having said that, I fully support Bush’s actions in Iraq. Has he made mistakes? Probably. But I don’t know what they are – hindsight is twenty/twenty, and we don’t have it yet. I don’t think that the lessons of Israel in Lebanon are completely applicable in Iraq. The biggest difference is that the US is A LOT more powerful than Israel.

I don’t know whether the US will be successful in creating a democratic Iraq, but I think it would be immoral, given the position that the US is in, not to try. And I’m sure that Iraq will end up being better for it, whatever that may mean.

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July 02, 2004

The Freeholders – part 2

John Ray and Amritas link to my post (The Freeholders). John says:

David's view that Leftists advocate what they do because they do not foresee the ill effects of their policies suggests to me that he has been conned, however. Conservatives point out all the follies way in advance but the Left just will not listen. They don't WANT to know about the consequences of their actions. They just want to feel good by sounding big and kind at the time.

I should make it clear that I’m not talking about pathological cases like Michael Moore, but for the rest I think that this gets into the nature of knowledge – I’ve encountered it many times. I frequently run into people who claim things that I think are absurd. Often they have “evidence” to support their claims – and challenge me to check it out. I don’t, because I don’t have time, and I have so much evidence to support what I think is a contradictory claim that I dismiss it out of hand. But sometimes it turns out that the common wisdom is wrong, and the claims that we dismiss out of hand are right. For example:

For most of the 20th century, peptic ulcers were rarely cured. The reigning theory said that ulcers resulted from psychological stress and dietary factors…

In 1981, Robin Warren, M.D., a pathologist at the Royal Perth Hospital in Western Australia, discovered numerous bacteria living in tissue taken during a stomach biopsy. Over time, he began to notice a pattern in stomach biopsies…

Later that year, Barry Marshall, M.D., joined Dr. Warren in his research, and together they verified the link between the spiral bacterium—later termed Helicobacter pylori—and the presence of peptic ulcers…

Most doctors were not convinced by the findings, and often, Drs. Warren and Marshall met with extreme skepticism and even hostility…

So, in July 1984, Dr. Marshall decided to swallow a large number of the bacteria himself to test his ideas about H. pylori…

For five days, he noticed nothing. Then, he began to experience nausea and vomiting. Although these symptoms resolved on their own after 14 days, an endoscopy on the eighth day revealed that he had developed severe gastritis. Still, Dr. Marshall’s presentations at gastroenterology meetings did little to convince doctors who proceeded to treat ulcer patients with new acid-reducing drugs…

After more evidence accumulated, the National Institutes of Health recommended in 1994 that people with peptic ulcer and H. pylori infection should receive antibiotics as a first-line therapy…

Ten years after compelling evidence was demonstrated! Most people simply dismissed the evidence because it contradicted their pre-conceived notions!

Amritas applies my thesis to Hawaii, with some interesting results. I’m afraid though, that I might have made it sound like the US and Israel are two peas in a pod – they are not, I’d like to talk about it more but I’m afraid I’ll have to push it off to a future post.

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