What does it mean?

August 31, 2004

Terrorist Attack in Beersheva

There has just been a terrible attack in Beersheva (B’er Sheva`), involving two busses. They are reporting on the radio at least 15 wounded – these numbers are always underreported at first. I hope Benjamin Kerstein is okay. Beersheva is a small city.

UPDATE: Benjamin is okay, and reporting. The word at the top of his post: pigua`, is an interesting one. The root (p-g-`) is found in the words paga` (v. wound, hurt) and pagia` (vulnerable). It looks like the verbal noun of pigea`, but no such verb exists. It is usually translated as: attack, but there is another word for attack: hatqafa. It actually means something like: an action in which people are wounded, or which is intended to wound people. You wouldn’t use it for a strategic military attack if the goal is not specifically to wound people, e.g. D-Day is an hatqafa, not a pigua`.

UPDATE: Benjamin has a first-hand report. A few months back, I was at the site of a bombing. Though in my case it was several hours later, I too remember most the eerie silence in what is normally a noisy city.

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You might remember jinnderella, I certainly do! She earned my eternal favor by publicly praising my blog on LGF. Well, while I was away, she started her own blog: Hot Needle of Inquiry! Now I can be her fan too.


A lot of time is spent in the blogverse aguing about the Nature of Islam. Islam is alternately a religion, an addin ('way of life'), a system, a world-view. It is immutable, it is changing all the time, it can never change, it will change. I guess I thought that the addin was the best model, until I got involved with Evolutionary Games Theory (EGT) as a side-effect of one of my interminable and unresolveable arguments about Artificial Intelligence with Zombie.

According to Evolution and the Theory of Games (John Maynard Smith), an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS) is a strategy such that, if all the members of a population adopt it, no mutant strategy can invade. Consider that Islam had 1400 years to evolve a stable strategy set. The selective advantage that gives Islam such an edge, is the "uncreated, revealed Qu'ran", which enforces the uniform adoption of the strategy set.

This sounds like Judaism too. Needless to say, Judaism’s ESS is somewhat different from Islam’s.

Go visit her, now!

UPDATE: I just realized that the name of jinnderella’s blog is a reference to the Gom Jabbar (scroll down). I too am a fan of Dune, an account of a fictional ESS.

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Trackback from Blog D'Elisson, TODAY’S LANGUAGE LESSON:
comes courtesy of David Boxenhorn of Rishon Rishon, who points out that “blog” makes an excellent verb in Hebrew...

August 30, 2004

Kfir Alfia

Scanning Instapundit, I saw this picture and immediately said to myself, “that looks like an Israeli” – then I looked at the name: Kfir Alfia, an Israeli name (Kfir means lion). I wonder what his story is? I looked for his bio, but couldn’t find it.

Part of the appeal of the left up until now has been, "Look, forget ideology, we’re cool. We’re here to have fun." That really struck a chord with a younger generation. I think that's changing, and I think we’re part of evidence.

I must say, the style strikes me as typically Israeli, but the ideas are pure American.

More here and here.

UPDATE: Seems like he’s everywhere.

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Phonetically vs socially optimal orthographies

Amritas makes an interesting point:

'Suboptimally' phonetic orthographies in which not all sound distinctions are indicated are fine as long as (a) there are speakers who already know those distinctions and (b) context can resolve ambiguities. They are not fine for learners who don't already know the words and who need 'optimally' phonetic orthographic training wheels until they can read without everything spelled out for their benefit.

Unpointed Hebrew is socially optimal in this sense. (Fully pointed Hebrew is phonetically optimal, though accent – which is phonemic – isn’t usually indicated even when pointed, except when writing the Bible.) Although y and v can be added to indicate i, o, and u, they are usually added only when necessary to differentiate between patterns.

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Marshallese Orthography

You may think I have a lot of chutzpah (huspa) to propose an orthography for Marshallese, knowing nothing of the language, but my love of systems, and the aforementioned problem makes it a fun challenge for me.

The following are my orthographic goals, chosen with the idea of creating a socially optimal orthography.

1. It should use the standard English (Latin+) alphabet – the absence of diacritics makes it easy to write using any technology
2. The values of the letters should approximate their pronunciation in well-known languages – leveraging existing knowledge
3. The overall system should be transparent – making it easy to explain and learn

Source: A Brief Introduction to Marshallese Phonology (via Far Outliers).

My orthography for Marshallese:
Consonants: p, t, k, m, n, g, l, r
Semivowels: w, i, y
Vowels: a, e, o, u


1. Consonantal rounding is marked by the letter: w. 
2. Consonantal palatization is marked by the letter: i. 
3. In syllable-initial position the w, i, follows the consonant, in syllable-final position it precedes it.

Consonants and semivowels:

    Labial Dental Velar
Stops Palatalized pi, ip ti, it  
Velarized p t k
Rounded     kw, wk
Nasals Palatalized mi, im ni, in  
Velarized m n g
Rounded   nw, wn gw, wg
Liquids Palatalized
 li, il 
 l r
 lw, wl rw, wr
Semivowels Palatalized   i  
Velarized     y
Rounded w    


high u
low a

(I have a suspicion that not all consonants appear in syllable-final position. If so, some of the digraphs in the chart would not be necessary.)

UPDATE: Of course, if an adequate system is already in use, that would most likely trump any, supposedly better, new system. As we say in the software business: standard is better than better.

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Socially optimal orthography in Hebrew

Amritas welcomes me back to the blogosphere with a question:

Would that description of a "socially optimal orthography" apply to Hebrew writing?

He is referring to this description, by Joel at Far Outliers:

I would suggest that a socially optimal orthography might get by with even fewer alphabetic distinctions. People could write fewer vowels and consonants than would be optimal in isolation, while relying instead on sentential, semantic, or social context to reduce ambiguity. But this approach would make linguists feel rather less useful.

Well this is a pretty interesting way to get back to posting! (I wanted to write something about the insights coming from my most recent culture clash in the US. But that can wait.) In order to answer the question I had to figure out what a “socially optimal orthography” is. It took me quite a long time, starting with Joel’s post, and following some of his links. Eventually I decided on the following: a socially optimal orthography is:

1. Easy to learn
2. Easy to read
3. Easy to write

The last two points can be grouped together as: easy to use. Now, any software engineer with some experience, who as written software for human beings (as opposed to software that interacts only with machines) should know that ease of learning and ease of use are two completely different things. But in the end, ease of learning usually beats ease of use. That’s why mouse-driven editors eventually replaced keyboard-driven editors even though nothing beats a good keyboard editor (like VI) for ease of use – once you’ve learned it. In general I would put it this way: if the feature is critical to a professional, go for ease of use; but if it is either not critical or not for a professional, go for ease of learning.

So, the first question is: are written language users professionals? We certainly use reading and writing a lot. On the other hand, it could be argued that learning to read and write is more important than ease of use – if we don’t do that, we can’t do anything. Joel makes his comment with respect to Marshallese, in which consonants come in three forms: palatalized (raising the front of the tongue), velarized (raising the back of the tongue), and rounded (rounding the lips), with consequent fronting, backing, or rounding of the neighboring vowels. The question he raises is: should the orthography be phonemic, containing three forms of every consonant and four vowels, or should the vowels be written phonetically (indicating absolute sound) not phonemically (indicating language-meaningful units of sound) with one form of every consonant?

This question is doubly interesting to me because it parallels an observation I’ve made myself with respect to Hebrew and Russian. Hebrew, like Marshallese, has phonemic velarization, and Russian, also like Marshallese, has phonemic palatization. But Hebrew (like Arabic) indicates velarization in the consonants, while Russian indicates palatization in the vowels. In both cases the solutions are appropriate, in my opinion. Hebrew and Arabic, of course don’t fully indicate vowels, so indicating velarization in the vowels is inapplicable. However, imagining that they did, it would obscure the root-and-pattern morphology of the language to do so, making it both harder to learn and harder to use. Russian, however, doesn’t have this type of morphology, but it has 21 consonants and 5 vowels (before indicating palatization) – indicating palatization in the vowels adds only 5 new letters, while doing so in the consonants would add 21. (Actually it would be somewhat less, not all consonants can be palatalized.)

Getting back to Amritas’s question: Is Hebrew orthography socially optimal? Fifty years ago there were all kinds of proposals for orthographic reform, including latinization, none of which were taken seriously by the public. The simple fact was that everybody already knew the traditional system, so any reform violated point #1. In any case, I would certainly say that point #1 is fully covered by the traditional system: fully pointed Hebrew is very easy to learn. I know many people who have tried to teach their children to read simultaneously in Hebrew and English, and Hebrew wins hands down. Though Modern Hebrew has merged the pronunciation of many consonants and vowels, it remains the case that a fully pointed Hebrew word can be pronounced only one way.

Regarding reading and writing, I have more difficulty answering. Ease of writing is clearly impacted by technology: the answer is different if you are writing by hand, using a typewriter, or using a computer. It so happens that Modern Hebrew writing became standardized during the typewriter age, that is: after the typewriter became popular, but before the computer was invented. Typewriter technology strongly favors discreet characters written in a single line, making it difficult, if not impossible, to type pointed Hebrew. (It was also inappropriate for written Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic. Probably Devanagari too.) Thus, the standard written form of the language uses no pointing whatsoever. I have wondered if Hebrew writing were standardized today, if at least some points would be written – computers have no trouble with pointing.

In any case, writing is no problem. Hebrew has 22 letters, 5 of them have final forms, and is no trouble to write or type. The big question is reading unpointed Hebrew. This is much less problematic than you might think, as I have discussed before:

The real reason that the system works is that only two things are needed to uniquely identify a Hebrew word: root and pattern. You can always identify a word’s root because roots consist of consonants alone. And it turns out that the degree to which vowels are indicated is enough to disambiguate almost all patterns – the little ambiguity that remains can easily be determined by context, much the way English speakers [not readers] disambiguate the words to, too, and two.

However, “optimal” is a pretty high standard, and I’m not so sure about that – but I do know it works.

UPDATE: Joel just posted again on socially optimal orthography – this time regarding Yapese.

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August 29, 2004

Triconsonantal Comments

William T. Drewery has some interesting comments to my post on Hebrew Morphology (scroll down, I wish I had comment links). I have expressed doubt in the past about the theory of Semitic biconsonantal roots, but William seems to know what he’s talking about. I wonder if there are any online sources, or if he can give any examples of Chadic biconsonantal roots. I’d also be interested in “templatic morphology” in other languages.

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August 27, 2004

Sound of the shofar

Another thing I enjoy sometimes: jetlag. Actually, overall I hate it, but I do like the part about waking up in the predawn hours and getting to experience a time of day I rarely meet. While I was away Elul came in – the month before Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment (Yom Hadin). In preparation for that day, a shofar is blown every day at the end of morning prayers. I had forgotten about that. While sitting here surfing, I just heard my first shofar of the year. (Click on the link, and go to the bottom of the page to hear the sound of the shofar.)

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Down the rabbit hole

I always feel like I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole whenever I take a long plane trip. It’s just so jarring. You get on in one place, where everything seems perfectly normal, and a few hours later you get off and everything’s different. The climate, the people, the culture, language – after all these years of travel I’ve never really gotten used to it. Instead, I’ve gotten used to the feeling of weirdness at the discontinuity. After a day or so, if I’m in a familiar place, I become acclimated to the local environmental norms, so when I come home I have to go through it all over again. I kind of enjoy it.

But I haven’t been traveling much the last few years, in particular I haven’t been to the US, so I was reminded of a few things that I had forgotten. For one thing, after closely following US news virtually, I was eager to experience it first hand. What was I thinking? On TV, in the newspapers, the vast majority of “news” is: 1) Weather, 2) Human interest, 3) News about news, e.g. celebrities. Somehow I had gotten the impression that there was presidential election coming up, and that this time it was particularly exciting and portentous.

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I’m back

I got back last night, too tired and busy to write. Blogging will be light if any before next week: I have a lot to do to get back on track. It was really nice to see the wife and kids again; they didn’t forget me (even the one-year-old). I was beginning to get guilty nightmares by the time I left to join them.

As you know, my hopes about posting while away were wildly optimistic. A busy schedule plus technological constraints made it impossible. Though I brought my laptop, I never took it out of its case, except while passing through security on the way back. I was afraid that by the time I logged on again (last night) my mailbox would be full, and my incoming emails bouncing. Luckily, though I got over 500 while gone, judging from the dates, they don’t seem to have filled my mailbox. Everything seems to be in order. (Note to anyone who sent emails while I was away: it might take a while for me to catch up.)

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August 09, 2004

I’m gone

I’m leaving in a few hours. This is my last post before I go. I hope to be able to post from the US, but no promises. Check back every once in a while, see if I did.

I expect regular blogging to resume around August 27, but if I need the weekend to recover it will be more like August 29.

(I would say visit Amritas while I’m gone, but you know that!)

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I read Nelson Ascher’s latest post yesterday with interest. I wanted to say something about Hebrew poetry, but what I was thinking seemed ill-formed and uninteresting. I returned to Nelson's post just now, and found this anonymous comment:

Also, in Russia there has been a long tradition of musicians putting poetry to music, thus creating popular (in a true sense of the word, not "pop") songs. This is somewhat different from France, where the poets have put their poems to music themsleves - I am thinking Brassens, Brel, Moustaki etc. (correct me if I am wrong). Russian examples of this would be Vissotzki and Okudjava. This Russian tradition has spilled over to Israel, and with a vengeance: I'd say that a great majority of the popular (and even pop) songs in Israel are classic Hebrew poetry that was put to music.

Now that’s something interesting! It’s true. Poets in Israel are national figures, household words. You often hear their words on the radio, put to music. I can’t think of anything similar in the US. I don’t think it’s true, though, that they are the majority.

There are some other interesting things about Hebrew poetry. First of all, there’s the phenomenal time-depth. Israelis have access to a literary tradition going back 3500 years. Much of the Bible is poetry. Of course there’s a whole book of Psalms, but there’s a lot of poetry elsewhere too. The oldest known Hebrew inscription (most writings are known through copies) is a poem, the cohanic blessing.

יברכך ה' וישמרך
יאר ה' פניו אליך ויחונך
ישא ה' פניו אליך וישם לך שלום

Y’varekh’kha Hashem v’yishm’rekha
Ya’er Hashem panav elekha viyhuneka
Yisa’ Hashem panav elekha v’yasem l’kha shalom

May the Lord bless and guard you
May the Lord shine his countenance on you and have grace upon you
May the Lord lift up his countenance to you and grant you peace

It loses a lot in my translation, for one thing its brevity. Here’s a word for word translation:

May-he-Bless-you Lord and-guard-you
May-he-Shine Lord his-face to-you and-grace-you
May-he-Lift-up Lord his-face to-you and-put to-you peace

This regains some of the original brevity, but now you have to get past the broken English. (Actually I left out the implicit “he” in the second verb of each line.) Brevity is one of the things I like about Hebrew, as well as its ability to rearrange words in almost any order (without using cases!), the ability to play with numerous words of the same root, and its large number of onomatopoeic words of the form: XiXXeX (for example: gilgel – roll, milmel – mumble, rishresh – rustle). I also just like its sound.

We often hear about the miracle of rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language. It was miraculous, but in a slightly different way than is usually thought. The story goes that Eliezer Ben Yehuda “almost single-handedly” created Modern Hebrew from a dead language. Without diminishing the greatness of Ben Yehuda, this is simply not true. He was the leader of a movement which included a lot of people, but more important: Hebrew was never dead. Hebrew was the literary and intellectual language of the Jewish people throughout its history. Though it was nobody’s first language from about 500 to 1882 CE, when Benzion, Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s first son, was born, an enormous number of poems were written in it as well as works of prose, intellectual and rabbinical literature, even science. In this way it resembles many of the world’s languages: Latin in Medieval times, Sanskrit throughout most of its history, and Modern Standard Arabic. The birth of European national languages in the 18th century as literary languages led, eventually, to the demise of Latin. If it were not for the birth of Israel, the same movement would have led to the demise of Hebrew too. Today, few Jews outside of Israel know Hebrew. The miracle of Modern Hebrew is that it was created by the last generation that could have done it. One more generation and it would have been too late.

UPDATE: Don’t miss the rest of Nelson’s comments.

UPDATE: The anonymous commenter is Alisa in Wonderland.

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Transformational Worldview

One of the reasons why I talk about worldview so much is very personal: my worldview is somewhat different from most of yours. It’s probably that difference which has made me sensitive to the importance of the topic. Recently, however, I have been struck by a paradox: it is precisely the purveyors of diversity that are most blind to its importance. Instead of promoting diversity in that which makes us most human: the way we think, they focus on its most trivial manifestations: songs and dance, habits of speech and dress, food. (I know, these things can be great art, and are worthy of study in their own right – but they’re not the essence of diversity, and even they suffer when stripped of their cultural context.) Skin color.

The worst offenders are those who look for root causes. It’s an odd thing; they apparently champion the diverse, yet invariably they recognize no root causes other than the ones dear to their own worldview. It’s as if underneath the funny clothes and food is one universal worldview. We’re all the same. All other worldviews are transformed into the one true worldview: their own.

Needless to say, the truth is otherwise – and much more interesting.

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Trackback from trying to grok, DIVERSITY:
Genius observation on diversity by David Boxenhorn....

Trackback from Cerberus Blog, Diversity or New Bigotry?:
David Boxenhorn has a post here that helped me better articulate my feelings on diversity. Simply put, I have a problem with much of what passes for affirmative action and diversity in this country because it counts people as things rather than individ...

August 08, 2004

Hugs and Kisses

Amritas and Sarah have posted about their beloveds. I will too:

אני לדודי ודודי לי

Ani l’dodi v’dodi li

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine

מחר אסע אל רעיתי

Mahar esa` el ra`ayati

Tomorrow I will journey to my beloved

מחרתיים אחבקה ואנשקה

Mohrotayim ahabqah v’anashqah

In two days I will hug her and kiss her

UPDATE: Dod is masculine, so it must be my wife talking. Ra`aya is feminine, so it must be that I said that. Theoretically, you could have doda, the feminine of dod, but I’ve never seen it.

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Going soon

Tomorrow night I go to join my family in the US. It’s about time. I have a lot to do before then, so I don’t know if I’ll get to posting. After that, I should have some Internet access, but I don’t know how much. I’m due back Aug. 27. Until then, don’t expect much.

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August 06, 2004

Cultural Imperialist Cola

There is soon to be a new cola in the Israeli market:

"We have a large advertising budget," says Mikdad Adris, the marketer of Mecca Cola in Israel, "and we will soon be embarking on a huge campaign in the Arab newspapers, on billboards and on Arabic radio stations."

It is the brainchild of a French-Tunisian entrepreneur who decided to exploit the hostility of many in the Arab world toward American products by providing a competing soft drink brand. The company's international marketing message is "No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment."

The goal is to prompt Muslim consumers around the world - and now in Israel - to buy Mecca Cola on a conscientious basis; instead of handing their money to an American manufacturer, they should invest their cash in an Arab manufacturer.

This inspires me to make a comparison with another recent entry in the Israeli cola market: If you drink Mecca Cola on Earth, what to you drink in Paradise? Virgin Cola. (You hope.)

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Hi, honey, it’s not me

This is one of the coolest inventions I’ve heard of, if it works:

Imagine sending a birthday song recording to a friend "sung" by you without the embarrassment of recording yourself singing. Imagine a movie in which the characters speak Hebrew, with the voices of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Robin Williams, without these superstars having learned the language.

Imagine entering an audio Net chat room where you can choose not only your own persona, but also a unique voice for that conversation. A man could use a child's voice, a woman a man's voice, and you could say whatever you wanted in your own natural voice - while on the other side your words would sound as if spoken by someone else entirely.

According to the vision of Shlomo Baruck, founder and CEO of startup VIR (Voice Imitation and Recognition), we won't have to wait long for such a reality. VIR has developed technology that enables these scenarios. And given that it recently signed agreements with several cellular content providers, we're not too far from the day when these services are widely available.

… The processing technology makes it possible to combine what one man said with another man's voice, thereby producing a perfect imitation of the person whose voice parameters are being used. Therefore, Schwarzenegger could speak perfect Hebrew, or any other language for that matter. All that's necessary is to combine all of Schwarzenegger's voice components with text spoken by someone else speaking Hebrew. The system requires only a four-second sample of Schwarzenegger's voice, which is analyzed within a few minutes. From that point on, the system could immediately combine Schwarzenegger's voice with any text.

I don’t believe that it’s “perfect” – I’m sure a careful analysis could tell them apart – but it doesn’t need to be. And the applications aren’t just cosmetic:

VIR's technology also has another application - reducing surrounding noise heard when speaking on a cellular telephone. For example, when there is background noise from a passing truck or even a car's air conditioner during a cell phone conversation, a component in the phone will recognize the sound as noise, not voice. Within three seconds, and for the rest of the call, the noise will be shut out and will not be transmitted.

Reducing noise, in general is a huge engineering problem in many applications. The problem is that it’s often difficult to distinguish signal from noise. If this technology can figure out which tones go with a particular voice, it might be able to do it.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that this will result in all kinds of mischief, as a result of impersonations, so I updated the title of this post.

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August 05, 2004

Spain builds illegal apartheid barrier in occupied Morocco

The BBC reports:

The eight and a half kilometre double security fence which separates the enclave from Morocco, is now being fitted with razor wire, infra red cameras and heat sensors.

Ceuta and Melilla have been European territories for 500 years and Madrid insists that they will forever remain so. But with a new king on the throne, Morocco is actively seeking the return of the enclaves and Spain may have to hand them over - sooner rather than later - if the flood of migrants cannot be stopped.

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Swift Boat Veterans for truth

I’ve come across quite a few links to this page today. I don’t know about you, but I just see an empty square in my browser. I looked at the source and extracted the critical link. Here it is.

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"Think For Yourself"

Quote of the week, from Brian Tiemann:

These American kids probably have "Think For Yourself" slogans scrawled all over their schoolbooks. One day they'll learn that thinking for oneself doesn't mean simply listening to people your own age instead of to people who are older and wiser.
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Nelson Ascher comments

Don’t miss Nelson Ascher’s comments!

UPDATE: This is the sound of a dying worldview. From Nelson’s blog:

Continue reading "Nelson Ascher comments"

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Three different things

One of my oldest Internet discoveries, of the ones I still cherish, is David Warren. My readers know that I quote him from time to time. What they may not guess is how eagerly I await his postings, and how disappointed I am when they don’t arrive. Of those early-discovered posts, the one that has stuck in my mind, indeed, which to me is the proverbial must-read on the Islamic world is Wrestling With Islam. It is a perspective that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, but one which to me is not unfamiliar. A word of warning: it is exceedingly long.

I have just revisited it, and I must say it has worn well. I will now take issue with a side-point of his, which by no means devalues the whole, but which to me personally is of utmost interest:

The whole story of the Old and New Covenants can be read as one continuous attempt to escape from tribalism. As the Old Testament itself progresses, through time, one follows this development of the self-understanding of the Jewish people, who are gradually transformed from a tribal to a spiritual social order. And along this path, the commandments of the Jew's God, leads them consistently away from the "tribal gods" and the "graven images" of their ancestors, towards universal principles that go beyond the tribe. They are presented explicitly as a light to the Gentiles; as example, not precept.

We Christians believe ourselves to be completing that ancient, Jewish covenant in the new covenant of Christ, to be carrying the Jewish spiritual logic forward, in an enlargement of the chosen people to include all the elect of God, all who can see the Messiah. The Gospel message is radically anti-tribal, and the apostle Paul carries this into practice in the very cosmopolitan, urban world of late Hellenism and Rome. The whole doctrine of the Virgin Birth, quite apart from the question of its historical veracity, has the practical effect of bringing Christ into the world, and taking him out again, without leaving male blood relatives.

Islam, from its beginnings in the Koran, openly embraces precisely what the Jews and the Christians have through our histories been walking away from: the very thing we left in the desert of our own antiquity. The entire social scheme expounded in Koran and Hadiths, is in its nature neo-tribal. It is not merely built upon Arab-Bedouin tribalism, but stresses genealogy and lineage, in questions that still divide Sunni from Shia today. A whole social and military order was built up on the male blood-bond, and dependent personal relationships. And as Islam spread it attached non-Arab peoples through their own existing tribal bonds, absorbing and affiliating Berber and Turco-Mongol peoples as "Malawi", or "clients" of the Arab tribes.

… We could go on at length about the contrast in the use of such keywords; it is indeed a profoundly interesting subject. But I will leave it here with the bald statement, that in their central teachings on the social questions of "how to live and what to do", Judaism and Christianity go this way, and Islam goes that. They are not "three of a kind" but rather, "two of one kind and one of another".

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not two of one kind and one of another, but three different things. I am not nit-picking here: they are different in precisely the way that David says two are the same. All three religions are universal, in the sense that their concern is for the entire world. In this way they profoundly anti-tribal, the essence of which, through most of human history, has been unconcern for those not of the tribe. Each of the three, however, have chosen a different path to universalism. I will not argue about the paths of Christianity and Islam. To the extent that I know those religions, I think that it is true: Christianity rejects tribalism, while Islam seeks to bring everyone into its tribe. Indeed, Christianity’s rejection of tribalism is the bedrock underlying the foundations of the western world, while Islam’s tribalism is the power propelling the jihadis of east. But Judaism has taken a third way, and like all true third ways, it is not some bland or incoherent mean (which the Greeks hold to be golden) but something else entirely.

The traditional Jewish view of the world is profoundly tribal, in the old-fashioned multiethnic sense of the word. Look in the Bible: there is nobody who does not belong to a people. It is understood that every individual is part of a nation, though it may occasionally change, it doesn’t simply disappear. Ruth 1:16 – Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God (El asher telkhi elekh uva’asher talini alin `amekh `ami velohayikh elohay). The post-Biblical tradition continues this worldview: neither are there peopleless individuals in the Talmud. Judaism universalizes this reality not by seeking to change it, but by giving it order. While not concerning itself overly much with the purpose of other peoples, beyond specifying seven commandments that all people must follow (which I will talk about some other time), it is quite specific as to the purpose of the Jews: to follow 613 commandments set down in the Torah, and as a more general mission: to be a “light unto the nations.” This leaves open the possibility of a perhaps similar (or different) purpose for other nations. Indeed, it is an article of faith that, “the righteous of all nations have a portion in the world to come” (sadiqey ha’umot yesh l’hem heleq l`olam haba’).

One of my profoundest moments of intercultural understanding came a few years ago in Taos Pueblo. It reminded me of the Old City of Jerusalem, where I was living at the time: a place where tourists come to gawk, but nevertheless a home, in this case to the Tiwa Indians. The natives recognized me immediately as a somebody, rather than an anybody. They were very curious, and asked a lot of questions, but for once I didn’t feel as if from another world. Their world was my world. They had their tribe, and I had mine, and though few of our traditions were remotely similar, the mere fact that we had any brought us together.

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August 04, 2004

Nelson Ascher describes how he died

I began this blog talking about worldview. My central message: it informs everything we think and do, and most people don’t even know it exists. Our worldview is more central to our sense of self than anything else. To change it, in a very real sense, is like dying. This is why people usually hold onto their beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the evidence to the contrary turns out to be false, or to prove something other than what it seems to prove. It is why I am a great believer in diversity – I am grateful to those who inexplicably keep alive discarded ideas, sometimes they turn out to be indispensable.

Nelson Asher describes the impact of 9/11 on his worldview, how one unignorable fact changed it beyond recognition:

I spent a month or so coming to terms with the fact that I had to change my whole worldview, that it wasn't just a matter of some derranged terrorists and of an isolated incident.

My view of Europe and the Muslims, democracy and dictatorship, the Arab-Israeli conflict, human rights and the Euro-American left, the UN and the EU, of the late 20th century and the post-Cold War world, Clinton and Bush and Chirac and Blair and Schröder and Putin, of religion and secularism, of many intellectuals, writers, philosophers and movie-makers, even of human nature had to change.

There was almost nothing in my mind that didn't have to be seriously reconsidered. This was the meaning of "everything has changed" for me: there actually are mosters, vampires, werewolves, death-cults and, besides, people I considered perfectly reasonable and rational were their objective allies and rooted for their victory.

It is rare to find a person with this kind of courage. In a very real sense, Nelson Ascher describes how he died.

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August 03, 2004


Nelson Ascher posts a long J'Accuse-style series of comments, example:

Most Israelis killed in the Intifada were civilians while most Palestinians killed were combatants. Besides, a sizable portion of the Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians. Why does Europe continue to back politically, diplomatically and financially the Palestinians. Arafat was elected in a fake election and his term has been over for many years. Normally one calls such a politician, a dictator. Is that what he is called in Europe? We know that the Arab countries want to destroy Israel. How do we know this? They said it themselves. The abolition of Israel is still in the PA’s charter. Israel has not tried to destroy any Arab country. Objectively, the Jews need a country because a third of them has been murdered by Europeans. Half of Israel’s population came from Arab countries and Iran from where they were ethnically cleansed. Why, then, does Europe consider Israel the aggressor?

The Palestinians have been incessantly targeting Israeli civilians. That is a war crime and a war against humanity for whoever believes seriously in international law. Europe could help stop these crimes by withdrawing financial, diplomatic and political support for Palestine. Why doesn’t it do it?

OK: the Palestinians are Arabs and the Arabs have what? Oil? Then, can we say that what the Europeans do is “all for oil”?

I have often wondered why Israel is often accused of aggression against Arab countries when they are in an official state of war with Israel? All Arab countries declared war with Israel in 1948. Except for Egypt, Jordan, and I think Morocco and Qatar, the state of war continues. This is definitely true of Syria and Lebanon, two countries against which Europeans have recently accused Israel of aggression.

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Bitter Envy

Someone called jinnderella at LGF has some nice things to say about Rishon Rishon:

Usually being a pagan sociobiologist works out fine for me, but in the Dark Times I confess that I look at the Jews with some of the bitter envy and hunger that all outsiders do. At Rishon-Rishon I can get a feel for the faith. He even has Hebrew lessons!

“Bitter envy” is often the way we think about ourselves, too. Thanks, jinnderella!

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Jerusalem Syndrome

I lived in Jerusalem for about five years, one year in the Old City. (I still live not far from Jerusalem.) It is an exciting city, for reasons that I’ve written about before, but magnified. One additional factor – all kinds of interesting and colorful people are attracted, from all over the world. Living in the Old City, of course, means living in the center of the maelstrom. My bedroom window looked directly, across a small alley, into the dining room of Gutman Locks. A few doors down, I was neighbors with Chaim David. It’s certainly fun, if you can stand having tourists poking their heads in your windows, thinking that your home is a museum, and you one of the props. The street that I lived on looked a lot like this picture (more here). Here’s a panoramic view of the Zion gate, a two minute walk from my house at the time, which I used to drive through every day (more here, for a view of the center of the New City go here).

At the extreme end of the colorful characters attracted to Jerusalem (so colorful, that for me they are not interesting), are those afflicted with Jerusalem Syndrome (more here and here):
The malady called Jerusalem Syndrome is no joke. Afflicted tourists have been found wandering in the Judean desert wrapped in hotel bed sheets or crouched at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, waiting to birth the infant Jesus.
Amritas appears to have discovered one of them, a talented comics artist: Michael Netzer (“original Hebrew” here).
And God spoke unto me and said: Stand up Michael. And I stood up unto my feet and I said: Here I am. And he said unto me: From the time that I spread the heavens and the earth I have named you Michael Netzer a sprout of the root of David the son of Abraham the father of Israel my first born and in you I shall raise my messenger and my faithful for the time of the end of days.
Some questions Amritas brings up:
I've learned that Netzer first discovered American comics (in Arabic translation!) as a child in Lebanon, moved to the US at age 11, broke into the industry at 19, and ultimately moved to Israel, changing his name from Nasser to Netzer (its Hebrew equivalent?).
Yes, at least phonologically (I don’t know what it means in Arabic). “Netzer” reflects current Hebrew pronunciation, in the orthography I use on this site it would be: Neser. You can see it in Arabic here (third word, transliterated: ’ln’sr, the first three are: gm’l `bd ’ln’sr – Gama’l `Abd ’alNa’ser). In Hebrew the word means “sprout” (noun), and it is sometimes used to refer to the Messiah, who is to be a “sprout” from the house of King David. I’m sure this played into Michael Netzer’s pathology. One wonders what influence it had on the original, who came from the city of Nazareth, in Hebrew Naseret, from the same root. In Hebrew, the word for Christian is Nosri – Nazarene, which could also be interpreted as an adjective from the word neser.
How often is Hebrew handwritten in print (rather than cursive)?
Never. This is the first time I’ve seen a text (as opposed to a sign) written using the print form of the letters. Unless you count Torah scrolls and the like, but that looks quite different (Hebrew column on left. This is an example of a tiqun, used to learn to read the Torah. The left column is how it appears in a Torah scroll, which is hand written, the right column is fully pointed).

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August 02, 2004

Presidential Election Market

Iowa Electronic Markets runs futures markets, similar to the futures markets in stocks, on all kinds of questions. The players are betting real money on a wide variety of questions: they are people who feel expert enough to put their money where their mouth is. I am inclined to take them seriously – they conform to the wise-crowd model, which I have talked about before.

Among other things, they have a winner-takes-all futures market on the presidential elections. Here is the contract – the description of how it works. Here is a graph of the daily prices since it opened (via Instapundit). As you can see, at the moment Bush is ahead, just barely.

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Nowhere Man

From Dick Morris (via Amish Tech Support) at the New York Post:

Last time I checked, Sen. John Kerry was 60 years old. But to listen to his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention, you would think he was still in his 20s.

He opened up his talk with a lengthy and evocative description of his childhood and what it was like growing up in divided Berlin. He told us of the "goose bumps" he remembers getting when the band struck up "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Then, after this long rendition of his childhood, he tells us at length what it was like to serve in Vietnam for the four months that he was there. So far, so good.

But then he spent only about one minute talking about what he has done since.

Oddly, his absence of biography confirms the impression I formed of him during my White House years: He's a back-bencher. I never can recall a single time that his name came up in any discussion of White House strategy on anything. He was the man who wasn't there. We were always figuring out how to deal with Ted Kennedy or Pat Moynihan or Tom Daschle or Phil Gramm, or Al D'Amato or Bob Dole or Jesse Helms or Orin Hatch or Joe Biden. But nobody every asked about John Kerry.

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Tu b’av

Today is Tu b’av, about which it is written:

לא היו ימים טובים לישראל
כחמישה עשר באב וכיום הכיפורים
שבהם בנות ירושלים יוצאות בכלי לבן שאולים
שלא לבייש את מי שאין לו

ובנות ירושלים יוצאות וחולות בכרמים
ומה היו אומרות
שא נא בחור עיניך וראה מה אתה בורר לך
אל תיתן עיניך בנוי תן עיניך במשפחה
שקר החן והבל היופי אשה יראת ה' היא תתהלל

Lo’ hayu yamim tovim l’yisra’el
Kahamisha `asar b’av ukhyom hakipurim
Shebahem b’not y’rushalayim yos’ot bikhley lavan sh’ulim
Shelo’ l’vayesh et mi she’eyn lo

Uvnot y’rushalayim yos’ot v’holot bakramim
Uma hayu omrot
Sa na bahor `eyneykha ur’e ma ata borer l’kha
Al titen `eyneykha banoy ten `eyneykha bamishpaha
Sheqer hahen v’hevel hayofi isha yir’at hashem hi tithalal

There were no days so good for Israel
As the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur
In which the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothing, borrowed
So as not to embarrass those who didn’t have any

And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards
And what would they say
Lift up, young man, your eyes and see what you may choose for yourself
Don’t give your eyes to beauty give your eyes to family
Grace is deceit and beauty is worthless, a woman who fears the Lord will be praised

Ta`anit 4:8

The last three lines are understood to be three versions of what the young women sang as they danced. The beautiful ones said, “Lift up, young man, your eyes…” the rich ones said, “Don’t give your eyes to beauty…” and the virtuous ones said, “Grace is deceit and beauty is worthless…”

Nowadays, Tu b’av is something like an Israeli version of Valentine’s Day – in modern Israel it is often called Yom Ha’ahava, the Day of Love. You can imagine where it goes from there, especially considering that, unlike Valentine’s Day, it comes in the middle of the summer.

Where does the name Tu b’av come from? In Jewish tradition, numbers are written using letters of the alphabet, sort of like roman numerals. But in the Jewish tradition, all letters of the alphabet are used, starting with the first letter. The first to the tenth letters (alef to yud) have the values one to ten. After that, the letters (kaf to quf) have the values 20 to 100. After that, the letters resh, shin, and tav have the values 200, 300, and 400. After that they double-up: 500 is tav-quf, 600 is tav-resh, etc. Numbers in-between are formed by combining letters, for example 21 is kaf-alef, 20-1. Normally, you would expect 15 to be written with the letters for 10 and 5, however, this would spell one of the names of God, so instead the letters for 9 and 6 are used. Nine is tet and six is vav, which can be read tet-vav, but is often read as a word: tu.

Tu b’av also has a personal, and doubly appropriate, meaning for me. It is the birthday of my beloved wife: Happy birthday, ra`ayati, yonati, yafati, `ad me’a v`esrim!

More about Tu b’av here and here.

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August 01, 2004

Acadian Accordions

A while back I was researching harmonicas, I had an idea on how to build them better and more versatile, and I stumbled across the Savoy Music Center. (Harmonicas and accordions work on the same principle, but where accordions have a bellows, harmonicas have your mouth.) It’s a wonderful site; if I ever get to Cajun country, I will be sure to visit it. In particular, I was taken by Marc Savoy’s autobiographical opus: Ponderings of a Reincarnated Neanderthal, which I have mirrored, since the site doesn’t provide a direct link. (You can get to it by pressing the “writings” button on the left.) It’s an inspiring tale of entrepreneurship. Marc Savoy is an accordion-playing boy who stumbles into building them out of sheer gumption, and a can-do attitude. He is now the premier builder of Cajun-style accordions.

After playing my first song on the Sidney Brown accordion, I was very very impressed, not just with the fact that it was handmade, but also with the way it handled. It had the response of my Hohner, but with a much smoother keyboard action. The tone was also a major improvement, but unfortunately it did not quite have the bass response that the old pre-wars had. I don't remember sleeping at all that night, and it was during this long sleepless night (which was destined to be one of many) that I decided to build an accordion also.


Up to this point I had pretty much tried to duplicate the design and measurements of the old pre-wars, but with these new reeds that were considerably longer and narrower than the old reeds, I realized that I would have to make some drastic changes and redesign the entire interior. Moreover, these Italian reeds were fitted to plates with a much closer tolerance than the old reeds were, and as a result were much more efficient in their air requirement. It was back to the drawing board. With a few test jigs, my mother's vacuum cleaner for a constant air source, a few pressure gauges, etc.; I came up with measurements that differed considerably from the ones I had been previously using.


By the fall of 1965, I had pretty much taken up my father's outdoor kitchen with my accordion building hobby. Accordion parts were scattered all over the place. Sawdust from the woodworking covered all the surfaces, so my father, who realized that I had developed a pretty good little business with accordions, told me one day, "Well, it looks like you want to be a musician and instrument maker, and since I would like to have my outdoor kitchen back, would you please re-establish yourself somewhere else?"

When I start to feel demoralized, I like reading stories like this. Marc Savoy gives the impression of being relaxed and energetic, friendly and enterprising, and honest. Someone to learn from.

UPDATE: Go here to learn more, and here for some music.

UPDATE: The words for accordion and harmonica in Hebrew are mapuah and mapuhit, respectively. The root is: n-p-h, the “n” assimilates into the “p” and doubles it. Other words from this root: nefah (volume), nafah (blew, exhaled), napah (blacksmith), nipeah (inflated), hitnapeah (became inflated).

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