What does it mean?

December 31, 2004

Happy New Year

This morning I took the bigger kids (ages 4 and almost 3) to school. Then I put the baby in her stroller and walked over to the makolet (מכולת) - general store, to buy bread and wine. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, temperatures in the high 70s, I would say, atypical, though not particularly unusual for this time of year. People were going about their business.

After a while I remembered that it's New Year's Eve. New Year's, like Christmas, passes unremarked in Israel. A lot of people who aren't surprised that this is true of Christmas are surprised that it is of New Year's - usually considered a thoroughly secular holiday in the US. In Israel, however, it is not the case. Israelis call it Sylvester (New Year having been taken by Rosh Hashana), which I think is its name in Eastern Europe or Russia. (I don't have time today to research it on the Internet.) Though the calendar which begins January 1st is usually euphemistically referred to as haluah ha'ezrahi (הלוח האזרחי) - the civil calendar, it is well known that its origin is Christian, having been established by the Pope for the celebration of Christian holidays. (Yes, I know, it's based on the Julian calendar, which goes back to pre-Christian times.) This general feeling has not been diminished by the adoption of New Year's as a siba l'm'siba (סיבה למסיבה) - a reason for a party, among certain sectors of the population.

The first New Year's I spent in Israel (January 1st, 1985), I made a point of staying up till midnight to listen to the news. In those days, the government had a monopoly on all broadcast media, and all radio stations carried Qol Yisra'el (קול ישראל) - the Voice of Israel, every hour on the hour, for about 5 minutes of news. The newsreader gave the usual summary of the news that was going on at the time. Finally, at the end of the broadcast, he said: "Hayom Rosh Hashana shel hanosrim" (היום ראש השנה של הנוצרים) - "Today is the New Year of the Christians". And that was it.

Happy New Year!

UPDATE: For more on Sylvester, see here and here.

UPDATE: For another perspective, see here.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:38 AM  Permalink | Comments (4)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/61104

Trackback from Willow Tree, Oh and By the Way:
David of Rishon Rishon has something to say about what I completely forgot. I didn't realize the day had passed till I looked at my calendar on the computer. I'm pretty happy about not realizing it; I guess that makes...

December 29, 2004

Girl of Your Dreams?

A while back, Dan Dare brought an amazing video to my attention, and asked what it shows. This was my response:

It shows,

1. A picture's worth 1,000 words.

2. It was not about beauty (as was said in the video), it was the same girl in each picture!!! It was about what she communicated through body language, clothes, etc.

3. What it is telling us is that guys want to go out with the "girl next door" (at least when she's beautiful), i.e. they like family values! (I do too.)

4. Alternatively, it shows marginal rather than absolute demand, i.e. that sexpots are common, and family-oriented women are not. I don't think this is true, but it could reflect men's perception of the truth.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:26 PM  Permalink | Comments (3)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/60898

December 28, 2004

Security Well

It comes as a surprise to many people, but Israel is a pretty safe place to live. It certainly compares favorably to any city in the US, though oddly, to an American, Israeli cities aren't more dangerous than small towns. Unlike the US, danger doesn't come in the form of crime, but in the form of terror. In many ways this makes it easier to deal with. Security can be effective, because we know what needs to be secured: places were large numbers of people congregate.

A few months ago we were walking though a park with some friends from overseas, when one of them suddenly exclaimed, "What's that!" I turned around, an saw that he was pointing to this sign. The sign says: bor bitahon (בור ביטחון) - security well. To be more precise, 'bor' can mean well, hole, pit, and bitahon is from the root b-t-h along with words such as: batah - trust in, betah - sure. When talking about wells, a bor is the kind of well where you walk down to the water, in contrast to a b'er, which is a well where you draw up the water.

Anyway, a bor bitahon is a specially constructed hole, that's designed to direct the force of an explosion straight up. Back in the days before suicide bombers, it was relatively common for our enemies to try to plant bombs in public areas. A bor bitahon is where you put one of these bombs, if you find it in time.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 04:36 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/60725

December 27, 2004

60 Links to Post

According to NZ Bear's Ecosystem, there are currently 60 links to this post. See them in the extended entry.

Continue reading "60 Links to Post"

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:02 PM  Permalink | Comments (4)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/60646

December 26, 2004

Bilingual Blog

Alisa in Wonderland is going bilingual! I say qadima (קדימה) - go for it (literally: forward)!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:07 PM  Permalink | Comments (1)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/60544

December 25, 2004

Christmas where it happened

The Jerusalem Post has a nice feature which describes Christmas in Israel:

This is also the only country in the western world that is absolutely devoid of crass Christmas commercialism, notes Rev. Heldt, and as a result "you are brought back to the reality of what Christmas is all about. That's why I love being here for Christmas. It is so simple, and so beautiful."

It's a little bit odd to hear Israel being described as being "in the western world". After all, we are in the Middle East...

How many of you knew that there are four Christmases in Israel? From the International Christian Embassy (dated last January):

Israel's Christian community, albeit a diminutive 3 percent of the population, is a microcosm of the world's gentile religions, displaying an array of festivals and holidays celebrated in a compact country. Christmas is one major – and slightly confusing – example.

While the majority of the western world celebrated Christmas on December 25, and then Orthodox religions celebrated on January 7, one Christmas has yet to be observed: the Armenian Christmas.

Now, lest we think we have a handle on the situation, let's add some confusion to the mix: It is only the 2,500 Armenians in Israel who use an old calendar and celebrate Christmas almost a month later than the majority of the world - on January 19. Armenians in Armenia use the new calendar and celebrate on January 7.

But even within Israel's Armenian community, not all consider the same day the main celebration. Armenian Catholics observe December 25; others, who hail from an Orthodox background or are not 100 percent Armenian observe January 7; and traditionalists observe January 19, perhaps the most popular day for the majority of Armenians.

This page explains:

There are actually only 2 dates for the observance of Jesus' birth and not 4. They are December 25th and January 6th. The confusion of the other 2 dates, January 7th and 18th are due to the use of 2 calendars, the Gregorian and the Julian. While most of the known world, such as Canada, is on the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory of Rome), some Orthodox Christians maintain their liturgical calendars according to the ancient Julian calendar. Thus, the January 7th date actually corresponds with December 25th on the "old" Julian Calendar while January 19th corresponds to January 6th on the Gregorian calendar. Those who observe January 7th which is actually December 25th on the Julian calendar are referred to as "old calendarists." Despite the calendar usage, all these churches observe the Epiphany or the Baptism of Jesus 12 days following the Nativity.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:36 PM  Permalink | Comments (1)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/60498

December 24, 2004

Merry Christmas

When I lived in the US I never much liked the Christmas season - not because I had any objection to Christians celebrating Christmas, on the contrary! It just seemed like everyone was going to a party except me, and I felt left out. The fact that I didn't want to go was beside the point.

Now that I live in Israel, the day can pass without it ever occurring to me that it's Christmas. There are no signs anywhere to remind me, and nobody around me who celebrates it. In fact, if I hadn't surfed the web today, I would have forgotten.

On the other hand, I now have no qualms of wishing, to whom it may concern: Merry Christmas!

Christmas in Hebrew is: Hag hamolad (חג המולד) - Holiday of the birth.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:29 PM  Permalink | Comments (7)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/60401

December 23, 2004

Living Life

Jinnderella links to my Maladapted post. Among other things, she says:

My friends that are observant Jews seem very happy, and have an exceptionally high "goodness coefficient".

My very unscientific observation agrees with Jinnderella's first, that observant Jews tend to be happier than average. I'm not so sure about the "goodness coefficient" though. It seems to me that there are a lot of good people out there, I have seldom met someone whom I consider "not good". In fact, I agree with something a secular Jew once told me, he said: "I don't think we should need God to be good." At the time I answered: "Judaism is not just about being good, it's about how to live life."

I once overheard a conversation between an observant Jew (OJ) and a non-observant Jew (NJ) that went like this:

NJ: Do you think that you are better than me because you are observant?

OJ: No, but I think I am better than I would be if I weren't.

I think everyone should feel this way about where they're at. If they don't, they should do something about it.

On further thought, though, it occurs to me that it's much easier to be good, when you're also happy.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:45 PM  Permalink | Comments (6)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/60361

December 22, 2004

Evolution and the Contagion of Reason

It is often said that the ancient Greeks were the first Europeans. Indeed, their culture feels remarkably modern. Usually this is put down to the Greek spirit of inquiry, its dedication to reason, or perhaps cosmopolitanism. But there is another characteristic of ancient Greece which unites it with the present, and distinguishes it from the past. It is a characteristic that is almost universally overlooked, despite its importance, because its presence is so much a part of contemporary consciousness that its nature is exceedingly hard to convey: ancient Greece, like modern times, was a non-traditional culture.

Though I, myself, am often haphazard in my use of the word 'traditional' (for example, I often use the terms: 'traditional values' or 'traditional religion'), at least for the purpose of this post I will endeavor to use the word more precisely: A traditional culture is one that has explicit cultural institutions for transmitting tradition. The emphasis is on the word explicit - clearly, people in all cultures learn from their elders, and thus tend to propagate traditions. But in tribal cultures there is strong, if not universal, tendency to maintain cultural institutions whose purpose is to preserve and transmit the wisdom of the tribe. In other words: maintaining tradition is an explicit value - not just as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. The identity of the tribe is symbiotically bound to its memetic wisdom, and each strives to preserve the other.

Traditional culture is often thought of as a kind of super-stodginess: elders frowning and saying, "this is the way it's always been done". However, I have found (and I don't know how generally applicable this is) that in a certain way quite the opposite occurs. The maintenance of explicit institutions for transmitting tradition provides a forum, and a language, for examining it. We see it operate in the one area of life that, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries, still operates on traditional principles: Law. The legal profession, in common-law countries, maintains institutions for transmitting not just the law itself, but also how the law is understood. And when the law is applied, it is necessary to consider not just the law itself, but the whole weight of legal tradition - this tradition being considered, in fact, inseparable from it.

It is perhaps inevitable that tribal cultures would tend to be traditional. Clearly, those tribes which best succeed in transmitting their accumulated wisdom to the next generation are most likely to succeed, so maintaining explicit institutions for this purpose would tend to further this goal. But there is a better reason: traditional cultures create the infrastructure for memetic evolution.

Many systems, not just genetic systems, are evolutionary. To be evolutionary, a system need only:

1. Consist of units which propagate traits over time

2. Propagate units with advantageous traits better than units with disadvantageous traits

3. Have some kind of mechanism for mutation of traits

Thus, many systems, for example economic systems, can be thought of as evolutionary. But notice that (1) and (3) are contradictory: it is essential that the tendency to mutate be extremely low in comparison to the tendency to conserve and propagate traits. If the mutation rate is too high, it will overwhelm the ability to propagate advantageous traits, and the system will be defined not by evolution, but by the quirks of the mutation mechanism.

The ancient Greeks, in adopting reason as the standard for judging truth, implicitly rejected tradition. It is this, to my mind, that is most responsible for the modern feel of Greek culture. But in doing so, they rejected an evolutionary system in favor of a viral one. Reason is a mechanism for the rapid mutation of memes: Come up with a good reason, and you will change your mind, and others'. The fitness of a meme is determined not so much by the constraints of the environment, as by its attractiveness to the fallible mind.

Clearly, reason has brought us far. But with populations on the precipice of decline in every modern society, it might be relevant to ask: Will it win out in the end? Perhaps tradition will make a comeback? Or perhaps there is some synthesis of reason and tradition that is better than either of the two?

(Cross-posted at Gene Expression)

PS: I think this whole issue should be thought of as meta-memetic evolution: Memes which determine the evolutionary environment of memes. It is parallel to genes which determine the mechanism of reproduction.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:58 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/60238

December 21, 2004

Instapundit Thanks Steven Den Beste

Glenn Reynolds thanks Steven Den Beste, and links to my post with the same message. The result: 13241 views of that post alone, and 82 comments in less than 3 hours. It's very moving to see how many people want to thank Steven, as I do.

UPDATE: More links from Little Green Footballs, INDC Journal, Betsy's Page, Liberalismo, The Smallest Minority. Of course, the first link was from Amritas.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:15 PM  Permalink | Comments (5)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/60043

The Herd of Independent Minds

This was too good for me to pass up:

Last spring, I was surprised by a call from a reporter at the Harvard Crimson asking me to comment on my contribution to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. His inquiry was prompted by the disparity he'd discovered in donations by Harvard faculty of about $150,000 for Kerry to about $8,000 for Bush. (The figures have since changed but not the percentages.) I could have filled the whole issue of his paper with reasons for supporting Bush over Kerry, but as we both knew, the real story was the "herd of independent minds"--the image is Harold Rosenberg's--charging through the American academy.

The Federal Election Commission could not have foreseen that when it required employment information on political donations of over $200, it would expose scandalous uniformity in a university community that advertises its diversity. The Sacramento Bee reported that the University of California system gave more to the Kerry campaign than any other single employee group, and that Harvard was second, with only 15,000 employees to UC's 160,000. A blogger computed the percentages of Kerry contributions over Bush: Cornell 93%, Dartmouth 97%, Yale 93%, Brown 89%.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:53 AM  Permalink | Comments (3)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59967

December 20, 2004

The Hyperbole of the Left

John Ray wonders why "Leftist blogs seem to have far more hits and far more commenters than conservative blogs do":

Kos, for instance, gets around 400,000 hits per day compared to Instapundit's 200,000. I think the main reason is an obvious one: Leftist beliefs need a lot more propping up than do conservative ones. A conservative finds his views -- such as the belief that you have to be careful whom you will trust -- confirmed all around him every day, whereas a Leftist finds that his views -- such as the belief that no-one (except "Rednecks") is really evil -- constantly contradicted by events. So the Leftist needs all the help he can get to generate a distorted and selective view of reality that will keep him going. So he is far more active in seeking out supportive sites than conservatives generally are. And Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore have made a bundle out of catering to that need for confirmation of Leftist beliefs too, of course. The fragility of Leftist beliefs is also attested to by how abusive they become when questioned and the Stalinist way they do their best to keep all conservative thinking out of their university enclaves. Reality has to be kept at a distance by hook or by crook.

I suspect a different explanation. The distribution of blog readership is a Power Law Distribution. The most popular blogs get a disproportionate amount of traffic, not linearly but hyperbolically. This makes intuitive sense. There are about 5 million blogs out there, according to Technorati. Let's say that the average person checks 10 blogs a day. Now let's say that he checks 2 blogs from the top 100, and 8 from the next 4,999,900. The average for the top 100 is 1/50, while the average for the rest is about 1/500,000 - meaning that the top 100 get 1,000 times the traffic as the bottom 4,999,900. This kind of relationship holds whether you take the top 10, top 100, top 1000, etc. (I suspect that my numbers underestimate the concentration at the top, in any case, they are meant only to illustrate why the Power Law Distribution makes sense. I don't know the real statistics.)

What John's statistics say to me is that the distribution of readership among leftist blogs is even more hyperbolic than among conservative blogs. This too makes intuitive sense. Leftists are more likely to follow the leader, rather than think for themselves. Conservatives are more individualistic and thus diverse in their tastes. As John says, reality is everywhere, constantly poking holes in leftist beliefs. But that doesn't mean that reality is easy to understand. One who seeks the truth will naturally range far and wide.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:57 PM  Permalink | Comments (8)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59900

Trackback from Iowa Geek, Today's opinion roundup:
Today's opinion roundup

Two Tragic Things

I think the two most tragic things in this world are: One who doesn't meet his human needs because he is unaware of them, and one who rejects his fate because he doesn't value it.

By tragic I mean tragic in the classic sense: the stuff of legends, drama - the ever-present truth, to greater or lesser degree, of all of our lives. (Mere horror does not make tragedy - I know there are worse ways to suffer.) If I were to choose one thing that I most value about Judaism, it would likely be this: At least in comparison to the alternatives that I am aware of, Judaism teaches a way of life, and a paradigm of our nature, which informs us of our human needs, while doing a better job of directing us to embrace our fates.

I have spoken often on this blog of the first tragedy: of our tribal needs, of our needs for identity, meaning, connection, communication, etc. Most Americans are only vaguely aware of them, if at all, and seem to have little notion as to how to meet them. Ironically, it seems to me that the ones who suffer most from this tragedy are those apparently most capable of avoiding it: the rational, and the intellectual. In the rational category, I put a large number of highly intelligent people who, I would think, would use their prodigious reasoning abilities to analyze their needs in order to meet them. But instead, they have a strong tendency to dismiss their needs as illogical, and ignore them. In the intellectual category, I put an even larger number of highly-intelligent people who dismiss our human needs as primitive, animalistic, or wrong, and instead of leveraging them for good purpose, make every effort to deny them.

The second tragedy is one I see often, but which I, at least, have a harder time educating myself to avoid in the general sense. (I think I've done a fairly good job in my own life, thankfully.) I see it all around me: people who are cut out for one thing, but pursue another because they don't value what they were made to do. This category doesn't include people who are forced, due to economics, to pursue second, third, or fourth choices of careers - but people who ignore their most valuable assets because their society doesn't recognize them, or undervalues them, or tells them that some secondary asset is really most important. A person should do what they love. Sometimes, because of the laws of supply and demand, they can't. But when they can, and don't - that's tragic.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 03:56 PM  Permalink | Comments (7)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59829

December 19, 2004

Thank You, Steven Den Beste

Nelson Ascher says it, and so do I:

You’ve proved to be a reliable compass. You helped us to apply reason and method to a chaotic situation. It would be unfair to ask more of you, but it is in the nature of things to do so. I’m grateful for your work. Thank you.

I consider myself lucky to have discovered him a few short months before his retirement (and to have received three denbestelanches). I wouldn't be blogging today if it weren't for Steven Den Beste. I distinctly remember the feeling, on first encountering him, that I had discovered a kindred intellectual spirit. It was through perusing his archives that I met Amritas, who both inspired and encouraged me to blog, and then introduced me to Pixy Misa, my gracious host. Then Steven's early links brought me a lot of my first readers.

Steven has visited Nelson's blog, and left a trail of some of the most heart-wrenching comments I have ever read. I have preserved them in the extended entry (as a backup) for posterity.

Continue reading "Thank You, Steven Den Beste"

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 06:29 PM  Permalink | Comments (201)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59731

Trackback from trying to grok, HE IS JOHN GALT:
I had a thought the other night that would probably make Den Beste cringe, but I realized that I'm glad that he shrugged. He started writing because it made him happy. He got noticed, and more and more people tried...

Trackback from Yippee-Ki-Yay!, The 2004 Yippee-Ki-Yay Award:

With most blogs (this one, for instance), it's the reader who suffers for the blogger's art. There are exceptions. When Steven den Beste decided he couldn't continue blogging, a huge void was opened in the blogosphere. The fact he per...



Trackback from TechnoChitlins, Stephen den Beste:
For those of you who, like me, read and loved the writings of Stephen den Beste, go here and find...

Trackback from porphyrogenitus.net, Tribute to USS Clueless:
Well, I kept hoping Steven Den Beste might change his mind and blog at USS Clueless again, but he explains why that won't happen in comments collected here from Nelson Ascher's Blog. During its heyday, this blog owed a lot

Trackback from Bryan's Basement, Thank You, Steven Den Beste:
The blogosphere lost an eloquent voice when Steven DenBeste retired from political blogging (he still blogs about anime on his blog Chizumatic.) After his sudden departure there were occasional rumors that he was going to return to the field. Unfortuna...

Trackback from Freedom Lives, Thanks Steven:
A lot of us in Blogdom, myself included, were inspired and owe a debt of gratitude we can never repay to Steven Den Beste. He has retired from blogging likely to never return. The reasons can be found here ....

Trackback from Croooow Blog, Thank you:
To Den Beste, who got me blogging......

Trackback from The Glittering Eye, Catching my eye: morning A through Z (UPDATED):
Running a little late today what with Christmas preparations, work intruding, Carnival of the Liberated, etc. Here's what's caught my eye today: A great series on the ethics of physicians making decisions for patients who have no one else continues...

Trackback from Chapomatic, What If Lou Gehrig Was A Curmudgeon?:
I miss the grumpy but clear and illuminating thinking of Steven den Beste. Apparently so do a lot of other people.

Trackback from Carnivorous Conservative, Steven Den Beste:
You can forget it. It's not going to happen. I've been suffering for years from a genetically-caused degenerative disease. For the last year or so, the only way I was able to continue posting was by taking increasing doses of

Trackback from Catastrophic Success, Thank you Mr. Den Beste:
While I was off-line last week, Nelson at Europundit speculated about Stephen Den Beste coming back to the blogosphere. I must say that I harbored the same hope. SDB had explained his writing process as something that burst forth from him after perco...

Trackback from Winds of Change.NET, They Also Serve... Thank You Steven Den Beste:
Many people missed U.S.S. Clueless' Steven Den Beste when he stopped blogging. Today, I learned why. All I can say is "Thank you, Steven."

Trackback from Bene Diction Blogs On, USS Clueless:
The USS Clueless (Steven Den Beste) was one of the "A" listers. His blog was huge, and had about 10 thousand hits a day when blogging was fairly new to the web. Then suddenly Steven signed off. Rishon Rishon was inspired to blog because of the USS Clue...

Trackback from La Shawn Barber's Corner, Annoucements And Links:
I'd planned to do an annoucement post at least twice a month, but I kept forgetting. Here a few happenings and interesting posts around the blogosphere. Leave a comment or e-mail me if you have an announcement or link you'd like to share. This post w...

Trackback from too much truth to swallow, The USS Clueless departs the Grey Havens and sails:
Well that reset my understanding of what was going on with Steve. There’s literally nothing left to say except: All the best Steve. Continue taking care of your self, you will be in my thoughts.

Trackback from The Laughing Wolf, Thank You, Mr. Den Beste!:
I found this post yesterday through this at Instapundit. I have written a short comment at the story, but want to take the time to say it here. Thank you, Steven Den Beste. You see, no one has done more...

Trackback from The Tears of Things, So Long, Steven Den Beste:
by Jerome du Bois Steven Den Beste, the long-essay genius who piloted USS Clueless for three years, has retired from blogging. David from Rishon-Rishon called my attention to comments Den Beste made on David's blog, responding to a post by...

Trackback from Fresh Bilge, Thanks, SDB:
During the current redesign, I've deleted several inactive sites from...

Trackback from Pejmanesque, THANK YOU STEVEN DEN BESTE:
Those of us who started out blogging around 2001-2002 and who from time to time delve into the essay format for our posts, naturally looked and look to Steven Den Beste for inspiration and a benchmark of quality for our...

Trackback from IndustrialBlog, Hats off:
As almost everyone knows by now, Steven Den Beste explains why he has stopped blogging here.

Francis P. has an outstanding tribute to SDB's to...

Trackback from Physics Geek, So long, Steven den Beste:
You will be missed. So I finally started catching up on the backlog of blogs I read when I discovered this post over at Rishon's place. The comments she displayed from this Europundits's post explains a lot. I won't do...

Trackback from No Treason, Trapped In A Blogosphere He Never Made:
Or: Never Can Say Goodbye The Captain of the Clueless is still trapped in a blogosphere of ankle biters.

Trackback from Critical Section, Sunday, December 26, 2004 11:40 AM:
Thank you, Steven Den Beste. One of the really great long-form bloggers, he's apparently suffering from a degenerative disease. Too bad, for him, and for us. I haven't removed the old U.S.S.Clueless from my aggregator yet, hope springs eternal....

Trackback from triticale - the wheat / rye guy, Bold As Love:
Steven Den Beste has retired as an essayist, but fortunately his analytical skills are still being brought to bear, as in a comment here....

Trackback from Asymmetrical Information, While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
Thank you indeed. I was extremely flattered to be called a 'kindred soul' by Steven Den Beste once. He was...

Trackback from Limbicnutrition Weblog, A giant falls: Steve Den Beste:
Is it all over? USS Clueless is barely updated. Steve is terminally ill. End of a fine era....

December 18, 2004

Indian Summer in December

I wrote my Cholent post on Thursday night (after midnight). Little did I know that the next day would be not windy or stormy, but clear, sunny, and very cold. Back in Boston we got weather like that around October and we called it Indian Summer.

In Israel you don't get rain at all from April to September. That, combined with the fact that we are surrounded by thousands of miles of deserts, means that the air is usually pretty dusty. Not enough to notice, most of the time, though we do get an occasional sandstorm. (Much of our topsoil is imported this way from Saudi Arabia.) However, since I live on the side of a mountain, with panoramic views in three directions, it has a big impact on the views around here.

In the winter the rain washes the dust out of the air, but since the weather is often rainy, and usually cloudy, you still don't get such good views. But clear sunny days are not uncommon. Friday was one of them, and I thought I would try to take some pictures. It's not easy to capture the effect of panoramic views, but I tried.

Here's the view of Tel Aviv from above my house.

Here's the main street of my little village, with the panorama in the background.

The band of slightly darker blue just below the horizon, and above the land, is the Mediterranean Sea.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:44 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59624

December 17, 2004

Tweaking Templates

You've probably noticed that I've been tweaking my templates lately. Since I can only test them in IE 6 and Firefox for Windows, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know of any problems.

Suggestions and other comments are welcome too.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 01:15 PM  Permalink | Comments (5)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59462

Winter + Shabat = Cholent

It's winter now. The rains fall. The wind blows. The fire burns in the stove. And in my household, it means that it's time to eat cholent on Shabat. Cholent is not so much a type of food as a type of cooking. It can be anything, as long as its cooked for at least, say, 12 hours. Every Jewish community has some kind of cholent tradition, because Jews aren't allowed to cook on Shabbat, but something that is already cooked can be left on the stove, or in the oven.

The word 'cholent' is itself interesting, though it's Yiddish, it's origins are in Vulgar Latin:

The word cholent itself derives from the Vulgar Latin calente, which in turn gives us the Spanish caliente as well as the Catalan calent, and French chaud from the Old French chauld. They all mean "warm". Allowing the meal to cook over the Sabbath comes from a phrase in the Commentaries. In preparation for the Sabbath there is the phrase tamen et hachamin, "hide, or bury the hot things". It has come to mean "cover the hot food." In every language used, Yiddish, Hebrew, Jewish/Arabic or the Arabic spoken in Calcutta, Baghdad or Ethiopia the two basic words of the phrase, refer not to the food, but to the method of cooking. The word for hot in Hebrew is chamin, and it has become the name of this Sabbath food itself. Amongst Jews in Calcutta it shows up as hameen. The other word "hidden", is found all over the Middle East in different forms of the same word; tfina, adafina, dfina, adefina. They all mean covered or buried. This concept of unattended cooking on the Sabbath produced a popular Spanish dish: cocido madrileno, a boiled dinner with chick peas. It is known to Spanish Jews as adafina. No doubt emigres must have spread this dish. We find a similar dish in the Jewish populations of Cuba and in Egypt, both groups calling it dfina. When Jewish pied noirs came to France after Algerian independence, they brought adafina with them. French speaking Jews have shortened it to daf. In Morocco the same dish is called sefrina or schina, which means hot.

The Hebrew and Sefardi word for cholent is hamin (חמין) from the word ham (חם) - hot. More here (including recipes).

UPDATE: Amritas links and (among other things) gives these English cognates to cholent: cauldron, chowder, scald.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:50 AM  Permalink | Comments (0)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59350

December 16, 2004

Read-Through Archives

A few crazy people have told me that they want to read through my entire archives. Since this is the sort of craziness that I want to encourage, and since for a long time I have wanted an easy way to back up (not that I don't trust Pixy Misa, but you can never have too many backups) or print out my blog, I've added a new set of read-through archives. The links are on the left.

The read-through archives:

1. Have posts in chronological order (instead of reverse-chronological order) so you don't have to read backwards.

2. Include extended entries.

3. Include comments.

In other words, my entire blog can now be found on just eight monthly pages, which can easily be saved to disk, or printed out. For what it's worth.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 08:20 PM  Permalink | Comments (1)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59322

December 15, 2004

Carnival of the Vanities #117

Don't miss the 117th edition of the Carnival of the Vanities, hosted by The Pryhills. Rishon Rishon makes a brief appearance among the cornucopia (can you find it?).

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 05:35 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59071

Yet another party

I have to agree with Alice in Texas about this sentiment:

Christmukkah. Jewsweek writes about it here and the fourth rabbi here.

I cannot stand religious pick n' mix, mix n' match, free sampling and easy dealing. If you believe in something, then act like it. Don't hand it over for another one similar that seems just as good. That's called not believing in anything. Don't reduce religious ideas to the secular level: if you think festivals are just collections of bells and ribbons, then have the decency to admit it. Otherwise, why stop at two, why not join in Diwali and Ramadan and the Druid solstice as well? It's just some cheerful fun that doesn't mean anything, right?

Okay, for most Americans, Christmas and Hanuka ARE just reasons to party, but still, it seems disrespectful to both to combine them. I can just hear pseudo-tolerant fake-diversity lovers saying, "Combine Diwali and Ramadan and the Druid solstice as well? Great Idea! We just love all this spiritual stuff!" I think of it as the 'Imagine' syndrome. It really annoys me that those who most loudly proclaim their love of diversity seem to feel that diversity, like beauty, is only skin-deep.

UPDATE: None of the above keeps me from laughing at this (via Amritas):

What is the true meaning of Christmahanukwanzaka? Getting stuff like... phones as low as $39.99, 20% off our new Camera Phone, free Friday & Saturday night calling, plus fast, free shipping and a free gift bag!

Ellipsis in original.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:44 AM  Permalink | Comments (2)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/59029

December 14, 2004

Last Night of Hanuka

It's the last night of Hanuka. Here's a picture of our hanukiyot (pl. of hanukiya).

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:43 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/58946

The Spice of Life

Diversity is the spice of life, I really feel that way - I enjoy diversity. But it's also useful. Diversity is the enabler of creativity, and creativity is the long-term insurance policy not just for our progress, but even for our continued existence as a species. Without diversity, eventually some circumstance will arise that will wipe us out entirely. With enough diversity, at least some will always survive.

Whenever I think of the benefits of diversity, I always think of the revolutionary discovery that 90% of stomach ulcers are NOT caused by stress, but by infection:

In 1983, Marshall presented his hypothesis to an international meeting of distinguished specialists in infectious disease. Many of the scientists and physicians attending the meeting were shocked by the notion that bacteria cause gastritis and stomach ulcers. Marshall's ideas seemed to be the reckless notions of a scientific upstart. Attributing gastritis or ulcers to a bacterial infection seemed outlandish. Martin Blaser of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee–a leading American researcher in infectious disease–called Marshall's ideas "preposterous."

The result - Marshall was ostracized, and driven to extreme action:

The reluctance of his colleagues to accept the idea that H. pylori causes ulcers provoked Marshall to act. Intent on proving his point, he made himself the guinea pig. Marshall prepared a broth of active H. pylori and drank it.

"Those were frustrating times for me," Marshall recalled in a recent interview. "Most of the experts believed that the presence of H.pylori in those who turned up with ulcer problems was just a coincidence. I planned to give myself an ulcer, then treat myself, to prove that H. pylori can be a pathogen in normal people. I thought about it for a few weeks, then decided to just do it. Luckily, I only developed a temporary infection."

That "temporary infection" gave Marshall stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting–classic symptoms of gastritis or the early signs of an ulcer. While he was ill, he underwent an endoscopy, a procedure in which a doctor uses a flexible fiber-optic tube with a tiny video camera on the end to examine the inside of the digestive tract.

Within a week after ingesting the H. pylori, Marshall's stomach showed marked inflammation, with crowds of the distinctive spiral bacteria hovering around the areas of inflammation.

And what if Marshall had been wrong? Does that mean that we shouldn't have funded his projects?

Amritas has been poking fun lately at some wacky educational institutions. While I don't disagree with his opinions of them, I take a somewhat more benevolent point of view: If this is the price of diversity, I'm for it. Of course, the problem is that educational institutions are NOT diverse. What we see is what happens when the government, or any small clique, gets to decide what kinds of diversity are legitimate. It reminds me of this disgusting work of "art" - courtesy of a Swedish government-funded art museum.

What the article linked above doesn't say is that Sweden has an anti-hate-speech law! So what is hate speech? Evidently glorifying Jew-killers, smiling while floating in a pool of blood, is not. In 1986 Sweden's prime minister was assassinated. I wonder what Swedes would think if an Israeli museum exhibited a similar work of "art" - but with Olof Palme's killer floating in the middle of a pool of blood? The fact that Sweden has anti-hate-speech laws effectively puts Sweden's stamp of approval on speech that it doesn't outlaw.

Not that I have any easy solutions to the problem, in the case of academia. (I have one for hate-speech laws: get rid of them.) Of course, a libertarian would advocate ending public funding of education and research altogether. But in addition to equity issues, I think these things have positive externalities, meaning that they benefit the general public in a way which doesn't automatically result (in a totally free economy) in rewards to the participants. I wonder what would happen if there were a voucher-system for university funding, and anyone could open a new university with a minimum of bureaucratic red-tape? In such a case students themselves would decide who gets funded by voting with their feet. Certainly there would be a lot more institutions of the kind that Amritas ridicules, but probably there would be a lot more quality institutions too. If so, I think it's worth it.

And sometimes, wacky ideas turn out to be right.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:59 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/58845

December 13, 2004

Two Narrow Lands

Amritas links to my previous post, and tells me something I didn't know (I love when that happens!):

The ancient Egyptian name for Egypt was t-'-w-y (vowels unknown), literally 'two lands'. t-' was 'land' (masculine) and -w-y was the masculine dual ending.

The Hebrew word for Egypt, misrayim (מצרים) also has the the dual ending: -ayim. I imagine that this is a reference to the fact that Egypt as a whole is a union of two distinct regions, each with its own history, known to us as Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. This reminds me of the Hebrew name for Mesopotamia: Naharayim (נהרים), which means "two rivers" - referring to that land's major features: the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The only other place name with a dual ending, that I can think of, is the Hebrew name of Jerusalem - Y'rushalayim (ירושלים), whose meaning is obscure, but whose dual ending inspires the notion that there are two Jerusalems: one Earthly, the other Heavenly. (These words, like all geographical features in Hebrew, are grammatically feminine-singular, despite the dual ending.)

There is a folk-etymology for misrayim which derives it from the word sar (צר) - narrow. There could be something to it, for Egypt is a narrow land, hugging the banks of the Nile, surrounded by desert. The m- at the beginning would be part of the pattern, not the root, cf. misparayim (מספרים) - scissors. This begs the question: Is there any relationship between Egyptian t-' and Hebrew s-r? It is not inconceivable. Both languages belong to the Afro-Asiatic language group (of which Semitic is a sub-group). Looking at the consonant correspondences in this table, I could hypothesize that an original th > s in Hebrew while th > t in Egyptian. The r > ' is also not inconceivable. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about Afro-Asiatic languages to know. I've looked for information on the web about the family, and turned up surprisingly little, considering that it's one of the world's oldest, largest and most important. Here's what wikipedia says:

The Afro-Asiatic languages are a language family of about 240 languages and 285 million people widespread throughout North Africa, East Africa, the Sahel, and Southwest Asia. Other names sometimes given to this family include "Afrasian", "Hamito-Semitic" (deprecated), "Lisramic" (Hodge 1972), "Erythraean" (Tucker 1966.)

The following language subfamilies are included:

Here's their list of characteristic Afro-Asiatic features:

  • a two-gender system in the singular, with the feminine marked by the /t/ sound,
  • VSO typology with SVO tendencies,
  • a set of emphatic consonants, variously realized as glottalized, pharyngealized, or implosive, and
  • a templatic morphology in which words inflect by internal changes as well as prefixes and suffixes.

Some cognates are:

  • b-n- "build" (Ehret: *bĭn), attested in Chadic, Semitic (*bny), Cushitic (*mĭn/*măn "house") and Omotic (Dime bin- "build, create");
  • m-t "die" (Ehret: *maaw), attested in Chadic (eg Hausa mutu), Egyptian (mwt, mt, Coptic mu), Berber (mmet, pr. yemmut), Semitic (*mwt), and Cushitic (Proto-Somali *umaaw/*-am-w(t)- "die")
  • s-n "know", attested in Chadic, Berber, and Egyptian;
  • l-s "tongue" (Ehret: *lis' "to lick"), attested in Semitic (*lasaan/lisaan), Egyptian (ns, Coptic las), Berber (iles), Chadic (eg Hausa harshe), and possibly Omotic (Dime lits'- "lick");
  • s-m "name" (Ehret: *sŭm / *sĭm), attested in Semitic (*sm), Berber (isem), Chadic (eg Hausa suna), Cushitic, and Omotic (though the Berber form, isem, and the Omotic form, sunts, are sometimes argued to be Semitic loanwords.) The Egyptian smi "report, announce" may also be cognate.
  • d-m "blood" (Ehret: *dĂ®m / *dâm), attested in Berber (idammen), Semitic (*dam), Chadic, and arguably Omotic. Cushitic *dĂ®m/*dâm, "red", may be cognate.

In the verbal system, Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic (including Beja) all provide evidence for a prefix conjugation:

English Arabic (Semitic) Kabyle (Berber) Saho (Cushitic; verb is "kill") Beja (verb is "arrive")
he dies yamuutu yemmut yagdifé iktim
she dies tamuutu temmut yagdifé tiktim
they (m.) die yamuutuuna mmuten yagdifĂ­n iktimna
you (m. sg.) die tamuutu temmuteḍ tagdifĂ© tiktima
you (m. pl.) die tamuutuuna temmutem tagdifĂ­n tiktimna
I die ˀamuutu mmuteγ agdifĂ© aktim
we die namuutu nemmut nagdifé niktim


A causative affix
s is widespread (found in all its subfamilies), but is also found in other groups, such as the Niger-Congo languages.

The possessive pronoun suffixes are supported by Semitic, Berber, Cushitic (including Beja), and Chadic.

The Hebrew word sar, in addition to meaning 'narrow', also means 'trouble'. Egypt was a place in which the Jews had some notable troubles. You might be more familiar with the word by way of the Yiddish 'tzuris' - troubles, from the Hebrew sarot (צרות), with the same meaning. In English, we use the word 'straits' in a similar fashion, e.g. 'dire straits' (a strait is a narrow body of water). 'Strait' in Hebrew is meysar (מיצר), from the same root, and in Hebrew it also symbolizes trouble.

UPDATE: I just realized that there could be a connection between sar (צר) - narrow and eres (ארץ) - land, linking it semantically with Egyptian t-'. Metathesis (switching letters, or parts, of words) is quite common in Semitic languages, probably the result of the root-and-pattern morphology, which can easily create unusual sound combinations. I was looking for this kind of relationship back when Amritas was talking about 'adam' and 'dam', without success at the time. Perhaps now I have found it? Of course, there's a problem: The lack of semantic relationship between 'narrow' and 'land'. Oh, well.

UPDATE: Now, several hours later, it occurs to me that the word sura (צורה) could be the missing link: it means 'shape' or 'form'. Although its root is s-w-r, roots are often related in this way. Also sur (צור) means 'rock', siyur (ציור) means 'drawing', 'picture', sir (ציר) means 'axis'. There seem to be a host of ways that sar and eres could be related.

UPDATE: Amritas responds, and confirms my guess as to the meaning of t-'-w-y!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:43 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/58670

December 12, 2004

Embrace Uncertainty

כִּי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ
לֹא כְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִוא אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִשָּׁם
אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע אֶת זַרְעֲךָ וְהִשְׁקִיתָ בְרַגְלְךָ כְּגַן הַיָּרָק
וְהָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ
אֶרֶץ הָרִים וּבְקָעֹת
לִמְטַר הַשָּׁמַיִם תִּשְׁתֶּה מָּיִם

Ki ha'ares asher ata ba' shama l'rishtah
Lo' k'eres misrayim hi asher yasa'tem misham
Asher tizra` et zar`akha v'hishqita b'raglekha k'gan hayereq
V'ha'ares asher atem `ovrim shama l'rishtah
Eres harim uvqa`ot
Limtar hashamayim tishte mayim

For the land that you come to, to inherit
It is not like the land of Egypt from which you came out
Where you sow your seed and water it with your feet like a vegetable garden
The land that you are moving to, to inherit
Is a land of mountains and valleys
Because of the rain of the heavens you will drink water

Deuteronomy 11:10-11

God didn't want to give the Jews the land of Egypt, where the Nile provides a continual source of water, which you can pump into your fields at will, with your feet. He wanted the Jews to know every day that their fate depended on Heaven, that their only security is God. For the security of Egypt is an illusion. The Nile, like the rains, is subject to His will. And when it fails, the crisis is yet greater.

Today, in the rich counties of the world, we live in Egypt. We take it for granted that we will have enough to eat, indeed we view even unemployment, such as it exists, as an aberration, something that isn't supposed to be. If only the government were working properly, we think, it could guarantee us jobs. And so the government makes laws, and provides jobs, and gives us the illusion of job security. But still, the world is insecure. It is dynamic. What we call security is no more than delaying the inevitable. God made the world this way because it's the way He wants it to be. Security comes at a price, and the price is freedom, vibrancy, and strength.

Instead of us striving to hold back the sea, God wants us to learn to swim.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 06:24 PM  Permalink | Comments (3)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/58584

My Kind of Labor Agreement

Is this reverse psychology or what?

The Ministry of Finance and Histadrut (General Federation of Labor in Israel) signed an agreement in principle last night. Under the agreement, the Ministry of Finance agreed to rescind three new taxes: on advanced training funds, on severance pay, and on shift work. In exchange, the Histadrut agreed to postpone a cost-of-living increment for public sector employees to 2006, and not to go on strike.

Minister of Finance Benjamin Netanyahu said the agreement would not breach the budget framework, thanks to an increase in tax revenues and previous cuts.

Really, I don't know.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 03:25 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/58570

December 09, 2004

Maladapted to our Habitat

For millions of years we lived in tribal units, stretching back in time far beyond the origins of our species, and continuing almost up to the present. A mere 10,000 years ago, all our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Probably, most of our ancestors were still hunter-gatherers only 5,000 years ago. But even after that date, we lived in small villages - from a social point of view not too different from a hunter-gathering tribe. Modern life, intimately bound to the social milieu of the city, became the native habitat of the majority only about a hundred years ago, and then only in the most technologically advanced countries of the world. It is a profound change for mankind that after millions of years of evolution for tribal life, we find ourselves in an habitat that doesn't support it.

It is my opinion that many of the psychopathologies of the modern world result from the breakdown of the tribal unit. We are highly adapted to tribal life, and only by understanding this fact, and what it implies, can we understand human nature. The bottom line is this: we are profoundly maladapted to our habitat. Symptoms of our maladaption include feelings of ennui, isolation and depression, so common in our society. From an evolutionary perspective, these are clearly disadvantageous. Who is more likely to survive and reproduce – a depressed, listless individual, or a happy, energetic individual? Clearly, these problems are severely selected against, and indeed in tribal societies living close to our original habitat these problems are rare. It could be argued that these feelings are adaptive responses to negative environmental factors, like pain, which would cause us to avoid them. But my observation is that people who suffer from these problems usually have no idea as to their cause, or what to do to overcome them. In my opinion it's more properly seen as a spurious emotional response to unexpected circumstances, much like a computer program given unexpected input – the output is spurious because the inputs haven't been accounted for.

It is well known that our taste for sweets and fats, an advantage in a world poor in these nutrients, has led, in lands of plenty, to the current epidemic of obesity. We have no natural restraint (or not enough) to keep us from overeating simply because this circumstance was too rare to make developing such restraint evolutionarily advantageous. Something similar has happened to the social nutrient of the tribe. It used to be geography that circumscribed the tribe, and economics which bound it together. Tribal units were physically isolated from one another, villages were distant, and cooperation essential to survival. (The distances need not be great, I think a half-hour walk is enough.) Now the speed of our cars, the density of our cities, and the complexity of our economy have erased these boundaries.

From my vantage point, these things seem obvious (though not necessarily true!), probably because my vantage point is unusual in the modern world: it is distinctly tribal. My ancestors have been urban for thousands of years, and it is perhaps because of this that they developed cultural defenses to high-density living, creating a tribal life through cultural institutions. (Or perhaps not, in any case, the institutions exist.) But let us examine more closely the psychological notion of a tribe. A tribe is a group of people who act, to some degree, altruistically. Barring unusual circumstances, any group of people whose members interact with each other, will become a tribe. The commenters of this blog are a tribe: I am quite sure that they are more likely to be altruistic toward each other than toward people chosen at random. But from a psychological point of view, that is not the defining characteristic. Rather, the most important characteristic of the tribe is that it gives the individual an identity. People who have a weak identity are likely to do crazy things to get one, like become a Nazi, or just become depressed. On the other hand, one who is immersed in his tribe lives with a certain kind of tranquility, a life without the modern plagues of ennui, isolation and depression, though it may be full of ordinary boredom, loneliness, and unhappiness. (The difference between the two: one is chronic, the other causal hence adaptive.) When I look out at modern life, the closest thing to a tribe that I see is the workplace - and this is a poor substitute for the real thing, like eating cake instead of food: filling but not nutritious.

Given enough time, I suppose that humankind could evolve from dogdom to cathood, become a solitary creature that meets only to work and mate. I don't think this is likely. Another, easier, strategy is available: to augment our genes with memes, and create tribes strong enough to withstand the hardships of our habitat. I think the change will become clear in the next few generations. We are already seeing it now.

Some candidates for the tribes of the future: Observant Jews, Evangelical Christians, Mormons, Parsis (though I hear that they're having a problem with fertility, an essential feature for survival), Sikhs, Jains, Marwaris (certainly other Hindu castes as well, that I don't know about), Japanese (I have heard that the true religion of Japan is Japanism), Falun Gong (other Chinese sects?), Druse, Ismailis (I would include Islamists, but my impression is that they're not demographically well-defined - maybe Islam as a whole should be on the list?)... Others?

Cross-posted at Gene Expression.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:45 AM  Permalink | Comments (9)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/58099

Trackback from The Pryhills, Carnival of the Vanities #117:
Welcome to the 117th Carnival of the Vanities! With the holiday shopping season in full swing, I'll be taking you folks on a trip to the Carnival of the Vanities Mall to get your weekly ration of rich, bloggy goodnessTM....

Trackback from annika's journal, It's Award Season:
Voting in the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards begins tomorrow. (No. i'm not in it, i think you have to be Jewish.) But some very good blogs have been nominated. If you vote, don't forget to support Munuvans Rishon Rishon*...

Semitic Consonants

Amritas writes a nice post, in which he talks about the word 'shalom', in the context of Semitic roots and patterns. He also links to this table in JPG form. For me, at least, the table is quite blurry and hard for me to read, so I have reproduced it below. In the process, I have turned it on its side, and replaced some of the original graphs in order to make it more amenable to the blog and HTML format. I also added a column for my own Hebrew transcription, that I use on this blog, which is meant to represent a superset of modern Hebrew pronunciations.

Original Notes: (1) In Akkadian the consonants gh, `, h, ', h, and usually y were lost, although there is evidence that they were present in the oldest stages of the language. (2) In Hebrew and Aramaic the non-emphatic stops b, p, d, t, g, k become fricatives (pronounced v, f, dh, th, gh, kh, respectively) after vowels unless they are doubled; *w at the beginning of words became y.

My Notes: (1) Underlined letters and q, except for h, are "emphatic". The original pronunciation of emphatic consonants is unclear, but in modern Hebrew and Arabic they are velarized, or uvularized (the back of the tongue is raised during pronunciation, in the case of q, this means that it is pushed back to a uvular stop). (2) In Modern Hebrew the process of stops regularly becoming fricatives, described above, has reversed itself for dh, th, and gh, which have reverted to d, t, and g respectively. Modern Hebrew spelling reflects the sound system in the Hebrew column of this table, which does not correspond one-for-one with my transcriptions. (3) By and large, Semitic languages are quite closely related, more comparable to the Germanic language family than the Indo-European family. Armed with this table, it is quite easy for amateurs to figure out cognates. For example, when I hear an Arabic word, I can usually come up with a Hebrew cognate.

Proto-Semitic Akkadian Ethiopic Arabic Aramaic Hebrew my Hebrew transcription
labial stops b b b b b b b, v
p p p f f p p, f
interdental fricatives dh z z dh d z z
th sh s th t sh sh
th s s z t s s
dental stops d d d d d d d
t t t t t t t
t t t t t t t
sibilant sh sh s s sh sh sh
alveolar affricates z z z z z z z
s s s s s s s
s s s s s s s
lateral fricatives l l l l l l l
x sh x sh s x s
x s x d ` s s
velar stops g g g g g g g
k k k k k k k, kh
q q q q q q q
velar fricatives gh - ` gh ` ` `
kh kh kh kh h h h
pharyngeal fricatives ` - ` ` ` ` `
h - h h h h h
glottals ' - ' ' ' ' '
h - h h h h h
resonants m m m m m m m
n n n n n n n
r r r r r r r
w w w w w w v
y - y y y y y

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:17 AM  Permalink | Comments (0)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/58093

December 08, 2004

Universities promote uniformity

I've known for a long time how uniformly leftist universities are (I went to one once myself), now I know why:

The truth is that it is very, very hard to get a tenured faculty position at a university. And the hiring process is unlike anything in a private business. In most cases, one needs a unanimous vote of the professors in one’s department to get tenure. This puts a high priority on intangibles like collegiality, which often translates into sharing the same politics and ideology.

This is a sure-fire way to get uniformity - and mediocrity. The most original people are almost by definition controversial. (Not necessarily disliked, but disbelieved.) A system to promote diversity would be designed differently, with say, professors taking turns on a small tenure committee, or even having outsiders be in charge. The system described above sounds more like a self-perpetuating aristocracy or cult than anything else.

The article concludes:

Unfortunately, fixing this problem will take a long time. It is certainly not amenable to a legislative fix, such as a quota for conservatives. It would help, however, to shame universities into treating intellectual diversity the same way they now treat race and gender. But first they have to admit they have a problem. That hasn’t happened yet.

I disagree about it not being amenable to legislative fix. At least in the public sector, any state legislature that cared to do so could begin fixing the situation by appointing trustees or administrators dedicated to diversity. The problem is that half of them like the bias on campus, and the other half think it's not worth the fight.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 08:23 PM  Permalink | Comments (3)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57975

December 07, 2004

A Tax Cut Parable

I hardly ever point to something when I have nothing to add, but this is too good:

Let's put tax cuts in terms everyone can understand. Suppose that every day, ten men go out for dinner. The bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

* The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
* The fifth would pay $1.
* The sixth would pay $3.
* The seventh $7.
* The eighth $12.
* The ninth $18.
* The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.

So, that's what they decided to do. The ten men ate dinner in the restaurant every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve.

"Since you are all such good customers," he said, "I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily meal by $20."

So, now dinner for the ten only cost $80. The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes.

So, the first four men were unaffected. They would still eat for free. But what about the other six, the paying customers? How could they divvy up the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his 'fair share'?

The six men realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody's share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being 'PAID' to eat their meal.

So, the restaurant owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man's bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay.

And so:

* The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
* The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33% savings).
* The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28% savings).
* The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).
* The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).
* The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to eat for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings. "I only got a dollar out of the $20," declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man "but he got $10!"

What happened next? See for yourself!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:58 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57849

Trackback from Solomonia, A Parable of Taxation:
Here. (via Rishon Rishon) Let's put tax cuts in terms everyone can understand. Suppose that every day, ten men go out for dinner. The bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay...

Hanuka

Tonight is the first night of Hanuka (חנוכה). Hanuka is the best known of the Jewish holidays, at least in the US, it is therefore assumed to be the most (or at least, one of the most) important. It is not. Its prominence in the US is due solely to its proximity to Christmas, giving Americans an excuse to call December the "Holiday Season". (Personally, I have always found this patronizing, we all know what holiday the "Holiday Season" is really about. Rather like a parent making a big deal about winning the consolation prize.) In fact, Hanuka is one of the least important Jewish holidays. It is not one of the seven holidays of the Tora (Pesah, Shvi`i shel Pesah, Shavu`ot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kipur, Sukot, Simhat Tora), it's a far younger holiday, added in historic times, to celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Seleucid Greeks, and the rebirth of the Jewish state in 165 BCE.

Hanuka in Israel is fun precisely because it's not so serious. If you don't have children, you probably won't feel it much at all. But children love it. In most families, every member of the household lights a hanukiya (חנוכיה) - the special candelabra made for celebrating the holiday. A kosher (fit) hanukiya has eight candlesticks in a row, a the same level (actually, to be more precise, they must be arranged such that when viewed from the front, no two candles are overlapping). A ninth candlestick must be either not at the same level, or not in line with the others - this candle is called the shamash (שמש). The Hanuka candles are specifically the eight candles in a row - the shamash is emphatically not a Hanuka candle, which is why it must be distinguished from the others. Its presence is required because of a singular restriction on the use of Hanuka candles, namely that you can't. It is forbidden to use the Hanuka candles, it is permitted only to enjoy them. When lighting the candles we say the following:

הנרות הללו אנו מדליקים, על הניסים, ועל הנפלאות
ועל התשועות, ועל המלחמות שעשית לאבותינו
 בימים ההם בזמן הזה, על ידי כוהניך הקדושים
וכל שמונת ימי חנוכה, הנרות הללו קודש הם
ואין לנו רשות להשתמש בהם
אלא לראותם בלבד
כדי להודות ולהלל לשמך הגדול
על ניסיך, ועל נפלאותיך, ועל ישועותיך

Hanerot halalu anu madliqim, `al hanisim, v`al hanifla'ot
V`al hat'shu`ot v`al hamilhamot she`asita l'avoteynu
Bayamim hahem bizman haze, `al y'dey kohaneykha haq'doshim
V'khol shmonat y'mey hanuka,hanerot halalu qodesh hem
V'eyn lanu r'shut l'hishtamesh bahem
Ele lir'otam bilvad
K'dey l'hodot ulhalel l'shimkha hagadol
`Al niseykha, v`al nifl'oteykha, v`al y'shu`oteykha

These candles we are lighting, for the miracles, and for the wonders
And for the victories, and for the battles that you made for our forefathers
In those days at this time, by means of your holy priests
And all of the eight days of Hanuka, these candles are holy
And we don't have permission to use them
But only to look at them
In order to thank and praise your great name
For your miracles, and for your wonders, and for your victory

"Your holy priests" refers to the priestly family, the Hashmona'im, who led the rebellion against the Seleucids, and the passage as a whole is meant to remind us not to use the candles. The purpose of the shamash is to be the candle that we use (i.e. if the other candles weren't lit, the light of shamash would be enough), if we need to.

During Hanuka, we insert the following words into every prayer, and the blessing after every meal. A short history of the day:

 ועל הנסים ועל הפורקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות
 ועל הנפלאות ועל הנחמות ועל המלחמות
 שעשית לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה
 בימי מתתיהו בן יוחנן כהן גדול חשמונאי ובניו
 כשעמדה מלכות יון הרשעה על עמך ישראל  להשכיחם תורתך
 ולהעבירם מחוקי רצונך
ואתה ברחמיך הרבים עמדת להם בעת צרתם
רבת את ריבם דנת את דינם נקמת את נקמתם
מסרת גבורים ביד חלשים ורבים ביד מעטים וטמאים ביד טהורים
ורשעים ביד צדיקים וזדים ביד עוסקי תורתך
ולך עשית שם גדול וקדוש בעולמך
ולעמך ישראל עשית תשועה גדולה ופורקן כהיום הזה
ואחר כך באו בניך לדביר ביתך ופינו את היכלך וטיהרו את מקדשך
והדליקו נרות בחצרות קודשך וקבעו שמונת ימי חנוכה אלו
להודות ולהלל לשמך הגדול

V`al hanisim v`al hapurkan v`al hagvurot v`al hatshu`ot
V`al hanifla'ot v`al hanehamot v`al hamilhamot
She`asita l'avoteynu bayamim hahem bazman haze
Bimey Matityahu ben Yohanan kohen gadol Hashmonay uvanav
K'she`amda malkhut Yavan harsha`a `al `amkha Yisra'el l'hashkiham toratekha
 Ulha`aviram mehuqey r'sonkha
V'ata b'rahameyhka harabim `amadta lahem b`et saratam
Ravta et rivam, danta et dinam, naqamta et niqmatam
Masarta giborim biyad halashim, v'rabim biyad m`atim v't'me'im biyad t'horim
V'r'sha`im biyad sadiqim, v'zedim biyad `osqey toratekha
Ulkha `asita shem gadol v'qadosh b`olamekha
Ul`amkha Yisra'el `asita t'shu`a g'dola ufurqan k'hayom haze
V'ahar kakh ba'u baneykha lidvir beytekha ufinu et heykhalekha v'tiharu et miqdashekha
V'hidliqu nerot b'hasrot qodshekha v'qav`u shmonat y'mey Hanuka elu
L'hodot ulhalel l'shimkha hagadol
 

For the miracles, and for the salvation and for the mighty deeds and for the victories
And for the wonders and for the consolations and for the battles
That you made for our forefathers in those days at this time
In the days of Matthew son of John the high priest,  the Hasmonean, and his sons
When the wicked kingdom of Greece stood over your people Israel to make them forget your Tora
And to make them transgress the statues of your will
And you in your great compassion stood with them at the time of their troubles
Disputed their disputes judged their judgments, avenged their vengence
Delivered the strong at the hand of the weak, the many at the hand of the few, the defiled at the hand of the pure
And the wicked at the hand of the righteous, and the wanton at the hand of those who busy themselves with your Tora
And for yourself you made a great and holy name in your world
And for your people Israel you made a great victory and salvation as this day
And afterwards your children came to the sanctuary of your house and cleansed your Temple and purified your holy site
And lit the candles In the courtyards of your holiness and established these eight days of Hanuka
To thank and to praise your great name

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 01:12 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57761

Decency and Defiance

John Ray tells the story of Marxism, Leninism, and Fascism, tracing the ideas back to American progressives:

They were the ideas of the American "Progressives". And who was the best known Progressive in the world at that time? None other than the President of the United States -- Woodrow Wilson -- the man who was most responsible for the postwar order in Europe. So Mussolini had to do little more than read his newspapers to hear at least some things about the ideas of the American Progressives.

And what those ideas were is pretty amazing. "Progressive" was the label favoured by the American Left of the day -- as it still is -- and yet they believed in such things as war being a purifying force, the subjugation of democracy to elite leadership, book-burning, stiff-arm salutes, loyalty oaths, flag ceremonies, the inferiority of blacks and Jews and, of course eugenics. And who said this: "Conformity will be the only virtue and any man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty." It could easily have been Mussolini or Hitler but it was in fact Woodrow Wilson.

So 20th century Fascism was in fact an American invention, or more precisely an invention of the American Left. Like many American ideas to this day, however, it proved immensely popular in Europe and it was only in Europe that it was put fully into practice. As it does today, American conservatism kept the American Left in some check in the first half of the 20th century so it was only in Europe that their ideas could come into full bloom.

It makes me think that what we have here is a conflict between intellectual fashion and basic decency. Ideas come and go with the winds of fashion. Only basic decency keeps them from inspiring tyranny (sometimes).

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:31 AM  Permalink | Comments (0)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57755

December 06, 2004

Knowledge of Intuition

Amritas responds to the post where I talk about my fondness for complex systems, such as evolution and economics, which are created by the application of simple, easy-to-understand rules. He talks about one of my other great intellectual loves, intuitive knowledge:

One does not need to spell properly or to get an 800 on the English portion of the SAT to get through life as an Anglophone in America. One does, however, have to decide to use a(n), the, or nothing before a noun on a regular basis. Such decisions are at the 'heart' of the language - the core known to all native users regardless of level of education. No native English speakers hesitate to choose between a(n), the, or nothing in the middle of a spoken sentence. Even a child can do it correctly. It seems self-evident - though it's also so hard to explain. If someone asked, "When do you use the?", could you give an instant (and short!) answer?

When I use the term intuitive knowledge, I'm referring to things that people know (which are true) but which people can't explain rationally. I find this kind of knowledge fascinating because people usually equate their thoughts with their self, e.g. "I think, therefore I am" - when the reality is that there is a great deal of thinking that we do which we are not even aware of.

Almost everything that we do, we do intuitively: walk, eat, see. To those who think that these things are innate, and therefore not thinking, I say: have a baby, you will see that these things are learned. But that doesn't tell the whole story: we are physiologically built to learn them. Children who don't learn these things at a young age will probably never be able to learn them, or will learn them poorly, and with great trouble. Language falls into this category. How many of us know the grammatical rules of our own language? Even professional linguists don't know all the rules of their own language. Learning language by learning grammar and vocabulary can only take you so far, the rest must be done intuitively, through usage. There are innumerable little rules in every language, that you must learn in order to be proficient in it. The amazing thing is that every everybody successfully masters those rules at least for one language. Even profoundly retarded people usually do a very good job of it, just as they learn to walk, eat, and see. (Anyone who has tried to write optical recognition software knows how hard it is, rationally, to distinguish objects from visual input. Yet people do effortlessly.)

I am very much a second-language speaker of Hebrew. If I concentrate, I am capable of producing Hebrew that Israelis will mistake for native, but this level of concentration is usually incompatible with thought. I have settled on an accent which Israelis have told me is "not bad" - which means that it is clearly foreign. And though I know the rules of Hebrew grammar, when I'm tired, or concentrating on a difficult thought, my production ability declines dramatically. Nevertheless, most of what you read about Hebrew on this blog are not things that I learned in school, rationally, but the results of thought-experiments performed on myself. Though I gained fluency in the language only as an adult, I was capable of absorbing through osmosis innumerable rules that rationally I don't know about.

There are those who claim that knowledge of God should be on the list of those things we know intuitively. I'm not so sure. What I am sure about is that worldview is on the list, and God may or may not be part of it. Our worldview enables us to interpret the events of our lives, in much the same way that sight enables us to interpret visual images, or language ability enables us to interpret speech. Hardly any of us even know that we have a worldview, or what it is if we do. Certainly it's not something we've learned rationally, in school (though the school environment is important in forming it: why I am so adamantly in favor of school choice). It's something we pick up through osmosis, like language, first from our parents, then from society at large. In my opinion it's the most important thing in our lives, and most of us pay no attention to it, neither in ourselves, nor our children.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:53 AM  Permalink | Comments (6)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57563

Killing burglars

Instapundit writes:

I agree. [That it should be legal to kill burglars in your home - DB] In fact, as self-defense against burglars generates positive exernalities, by reducing the number of burglars, and their willingness to break into homes which might be occupied (thus reducing the risk that people will suffer Mr. Symonds' fate), there's a good economic argument that it ought to be not simply tolerated, but actively encouraged and even subsidized.

It is interesting to compare this with halakha (Jewish law). According to halakha, you are required to kill burglars who break into your home, in self-defense. (In Jewish law, self-defense is not an option, but an obligation.) The reasoning is that a burglar who breaks into your home, as opposed to a thief who steals surreptitiously, comes prepared for opposition - i.e. he is prepared to kill you if he meets you. Therefore, killing him is by definition self-defense.

UPDATE: Instapundit links to a Daily Telegraph article. It is a shocking account of what happens to a society when it refuses to defend itself. It tells us a lot about what's going on in Europe today. Sample:

When I debated this issue with the eminent lawyer Lord (Andrew) Phillips on the Jeremy Vine radio show, he argued that while the number of burglaries would drop if there were an unqualified right of self-defence "the number of injuries to householders will vastly increase because the burglars will get their retaliation in first... It is an iron rule, criminals are more violent than victims."

The victim always has a psychological advantage over the attacker: If the price of aggression becomes to high, the attacker can walk (or run) away. Criminals don't want to get hurt, they want to get away with their actions.

After John's murder my mind was filled with violent thoughts. I imagined his killers strung up on gibbets in Trafalgar Square, being pecked at by the pigeons. Then I received a letter from his friend and fellow Catholic, Lord Grantley, who said: "John would have wanted us to pray not only for his family, but also for his murderers, that they should repent, for otherwise they would perish, a fate he would not have wished on anyone."

There is no contradiction between praying that murderers repent, and killing them in self-defense.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:14 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57555

Trackback from Serenade, Make my Day:
The more I read about Jewish law and morals, the more convinced I become that 5000-odd years of refinement have actually been good for quite a lot. I found this item on Rishon Rishon (one of my favourite Israeli blogs, by the way):

December 04, 2004

Israel: The Brand

Jonathan Medved thinks Israel needs rebranding:

While Silicon Valley still reigns supreme among technology movers and shakers, Israel is clearly in an unassailable second place. In the third quarter of 2004, Israel produced 113 startups that attracted venture capital funding. Over this same period, the entire United States produced only 467 venture-backed companies. This means that Israel, with a population just two percent of America's, has almost 25% of the venture-backed startups relative to the US. Add to this Israel's number of patents filed and granted, its legion of companies traded on Nasdaq, our recent IPOs, mergers, and acquisitions, and the data is truly impressive. Yet these statistics tell only part of the story.

The fact is that the majority of technology-connected people around the world both use and interact with Israeli technology several times a day without even knowing it. Every time you open your Intel-based computer with either a Pentium or Centrino inside, you are using Israeli know-how. The same when you leave a voice mail message on a Comverse mailbox or when you send an AOL or ICQ instant message. Or when you use any electronics that has a circuit card or display inspected by Orbotech, or a flash memory from Msystems or SanDisk.

Whether you know it or not, Israel is there when you are billed for a phone call by Amdocs or when you contact a call center monitored by Nice or Verint.

Almost everyone on the Internet is protected by a Check Point firewall or by a myriad of Israeli antivirus products. This list can go on and on; and yet while this "daily dose" of Israeli technology is a fact of life, we get virtually no credit for it. Most people have no awareness of how much of their indispensable technology is actually "Made in Israel."

Add to this the new life-saving, medical, and green technologies now being developed by Israeli companies such as Proneuron's spinal cord restoration, Teva's cost-saving generic drugs, Given's pain-saving Pill Cams, InSightec's non-invasive cyst blaster, Syneron's cosmetic and skin savers, Ormat's geothermal and wind energy plants, and you have a broad story of Israeli companies working for the benefit of mankind.

I have worked almost my entire professional life in the Israeli high-tech industry, so I am in a position to comment on this. Except perhaps in the internet security industry, all high-tech companies try to hide their Israeli origin - it's considered bad for business. Often they open up headquarters in the US, or (less often) other countries. I have been to high-tech conventions in the US where people have looked at my business card and said, "Israel? Are you kidding?" as if it said Upper Volta (now called Burkina Faso, incidentally a country with more than twice Israel's population). On the other hand, once you get to a certain level in the high-tech corporate hierarchy, there is widespread recognition of Israel's importance in the industry. 

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:58 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57395

Cognition and Musical Instruments

Wintermute asks:

How difficult was the guitar?

I had a brief period on the piano when younger, and experienced the alteration in the perception of music that you describe.

Now, like you, I am a post thirties type, interested in picking up an instrument. Your observations as to what it is like would be appreciated.

Piano is singularly difficult instrument, in my opinion, because there are only two ways in which the quality of a note can be varied - its length and volume. Of well-known western instruments, only the harpsichord is worse - you cannot even do that! (Okay, on the piano you can use the pedals too, big deal.) In contrast, with all other instruments you are in direct contact with the musical element, and can vary the quality of the note by the way you play, introducing microtones, or different harmonics, through processes cognitively similar to skills you already have.

Not that I don't like piano music - in fact I love it. But adding emotion to piano music requires mastering the cognitively complex skill of playing many notes in quick succession, or even at the same time, usually with different rhythms, a kind of musical pointillism where each note has to be individually specified. By way of example, imagine playing a simple tune, say "Oh, Susana" on the piano. Playing it straight would be extremely boring. In order to make it interesting, you would have to come up with some sort of complex arrangement for it, something most people can't do spontaneously, even if they can play it. In contrast, I have no trouble playing it on the Harmonica with enough musical interest that I (at least) find it interesting. I can modulate the notes in all kinds of interesting ways, taking advantage of cognitive pathways I already have for voice (after all I have been speaking for a long time). Guitar is somewhere in between - though our hands, unlike our lungs, lips, and tongue, are not normally used for producing sound, it seems fairly natural to map that ability to the way you pick, strum, or bend a string - much more natural than what you have to do with a piano!

If I were to recommend a instrument to start with, I'd definitely choose harmonica. Not only is it easy to add color to your notes, to keep yourself interested, but you can go up and down the scale by simply sliding your mouth up and down the instrument. True, the layout of the notes takes a little getting used to (not much, in my experience), but it has the advantage that the blow notes form major chords (which is why it's called an harmonica), and if you're playing western music, it is very natural to use this as your frame of reference. I just started teaching my four-year-old, we'll see how it goes.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:26 PM  Permalink | Comments (1)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57388

December 03, 2004

Magical Mystery

I was over thirty when I first learned to play a musical instrument. If I try, I can still remember what it was like to listen to music back then. It was magical and mysterious. It made me feel things, indescribable, wonderful, joyous, sad. Each tune, unfathomably unique, its own special musical world. I would sit back and let the music wash over me and marvel at it, each unique note coming down exactly in its place, revealing its secrets.

Then I taught myself music, and I learned its structure. The scale (a term, the meaning of which I knew, but somehow never absorbed), major, minor, chords. I noticed that songs were built around chords, even when not played. And I learned what patterns create what moods. And I noticed that each song, far from being unique, was often very much like many other songs. In fact, whole genres, like blues, were little more than different arrangements of the same tune. Much of the mystery, and the magic was gone. But strangely, I began to enjoy music not less, but more. For all magic and mystery I lost, what I gained deeper, richer, and even more magical.

I often get the feeling that people shy away from certain kinds of knowledge because they don't want to destroy life's mystery. They don't really want to know who they are, or why they are attracted to their spouse. They believe that they should know intuitively how to raise their children, or how to make their marriage work, or how to enjoy life. And there are some good reasons for this: they intuitively do know much, the same way that the musically untrained know much about music. (I realize how much I knew intuitively when I hear non-western music. Though I find it pleasant to listen to, it is almost incomprehensible to me. Though with western music I pick up tunes instantly and remember them easily, with non-western music the tune is forgotten second the music stops.)

One of the life-coloring differences between the secular culture of the US and religious Jewish culture is the commonplace introspection of the intuitive. Self-analysis is part of the culture. Not psychological self-analysis, but self-analysis to determine whether you're doing things right, being a good person, getting the most out of life. It is common for people to take classes on raising children and on couplehood, in addition to Bible-oriented, or more "spiritual" classes. It is assumed that we know these subjects imperfectly, at best, and that there are things that can be learned by (more or less) formal methodology. In fact, these subjects are considered important aspects of spiritual growth, not just practical wisdom.

Uncovering the little mysteries of life doesn't make it more prosaic, but deeper, richer, and more magical than ever.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:07 AM  Permalink | Comments (11)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57105

December 02, 2004

Canada on drugs

David Warren writes about the latest Canadian statistic showing drug use doubling over the past ten years:

I'm aware that I'm writing in the newspaper in which the semi-legendary Dan Gardner wrote innumerable series of award-winning articles arguing that the legalization of drugs would put an end to all associated organized crime and make the world safe for democracy. It's one of those issues about which, even though I am a vocational pundit, I have never had an opinion. But wait for it, I'm about to come up with one.

The flaw in the libertarian argument, is that people don't need permission to misbehave. That is the part of human behaviour that comes naturally. Instead, it takes a considerable amount of repressive tradition, social stigma, and legal threat, to get anything good out of the species. And while there may be some tactical discussion of what is worth making illegal, and what is not, the idea that you can reduce crime by getting rid of laws is tautological.

In this case, the question of organized crime is tertiary. We have police to take care of that sort of thing, and if there aren't enough, then we need more.

The secondary question is: Do we want to live in a country which is a magnet for all the superannuated hippies in the USA? While the Americans progressively close the border against drug shipments passing the other way? With consequences for all the dwindling number of Canadians who do not happen to be stoned out of their wee minds? But even on this level, drug legalization would be merely an act of stupidity.

The primary question is, do we want the drug culture to become our public culture? For that is the unseen goal we now approach: in a word, Holland.

The flaw in the libertarian argument, which David points out, but doesn't identify as such, is that if recreational drugs are to be legalized, it will deprive us of the freedom to live and raise our children in a drug-free environment. This lack of thought for externalities (consequences to third parties of your actions) is perhaps the main reason why I am not a libertarian. To be fair, libertarians believe that such things can be resolved through private contracts, i.e. that we could develop drug-free neighborhoods where the inhabitants agree contractually not to use drugs. But since most cities are mostly built, such a thing is currently almost impossible. So we have to choose, which freedom do you most value?

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 03:37 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
Trackback URL: http://blog2.mu.nu/cgi/trackback.cgi/57027