What does it mean?

June 30, 2005

The Rebirth of Hebrew: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish

I just stumbled across the book, A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish. It gave me a laugh, I guess some women see sex everywhere. Did you know that the rebirth of Hebrew was yet another victory for male hegemony?

With remarkably original formulations, Naomi Seidman examines the ways that Hebrew, the Holy Tongue, and Yiddish, the vernacular language of Ashkenazic Jews, came to represent the masculine and feminine faces, respectively, of Ashkenazic Jewish culture. Her sophisticated history is the first book-length exploration of the sexual politics underlying the "marriage" of Hebrew and Yiddish, and it has profound implications for understanding the centrality of language choices and ideologies in the construction of modern Jewish identity. Seidman particularly examines this sexual-linguistic system as it shaped the work of two bilingual authors, S.Y. Abramovitsh, the "grand-father" of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature; and Dvora Baron, the first modern woman writer in Hebrew (and a writer in Yiddish as well). She also provides an analysis of the roles that Hebrew "masculinity" and Yiddish "femininity" played in the Hebrew- Yiddish language wars, the divorce that ultimately ended the marriage between the languages. Theorists have long debated the role of mother and father in the child's relationship to language. Seidman presents the Ashkenazic case as an illuminating example of a society in which "mother tongue" and "father tongue" are clearly differentiated. Her work speaks to important issues in contemporary scholarship, including the psychoanalysis of language acquisition, the feminist critique of Zionism, and the nexus of women's studies and Yiddish literary history.

Well, I haven't read the book, but I will guess that Hebrew is "male" because until recently only boys were given formal schooling, where they learned Hebrew, so that would make it a "male" language. And of course, by default, Yiddish would be "female". Also, Yiddish speakers usually referred to their language not as "Yiddish" (which just means "Jewish" in Yiddish) but as "Mama Loshen" - Mother Tongue.

UPDATE: I just want to explicitly point out the intellectual trick that is being pulled here. It goes like this: First you say that X represents Y, then you get all hot and bothered, or all caught up with yourself talking about X as if it embodied Y. I don't have any problem with making a poetic comparison of Hebrew to male and Yiddish to female, if you want to do that, but to then go and claim that something that happens to X (e.g. Yiddish) really happened to Y (e.g. females), or that something that X (e.g. Hebrew) did was really done by Y (males) is simply an unconscionable abuse of intellect for the purpose of deception (perhaps of yourself).

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June 28, 2005

How many lives have you saved?

David Bogner has saved 82:

Life # 1: One day during the summer between 1st & 2nd grade I was at the local swimming pool with my family. A friend and I were sitting on the edge of the pool talking when we saw a toddler wander away from his parents and fall into the deep end of the pool a few yards away. We looked at each other in horror because we realized that we were the only ones who had seen the little boy fall into the pool. My friend only knew how to swim on top of the water and I only knew how to swim underwater (long story for another day). I dove down to the bottom of the pool and started dragging the squirming boy towards the surface. Once I broke the surface my friend was waiting there for me to help drag the flailing kid towards the edge of the pool. By now the lifeguard had realized something was wrong and he helped pull the toddler from the pool. I can still remember the tearful thank you I got from the kid's parents (they were a Lebanese couple that my parents knew), and the pizza dinner my parents bought me as a hero's reward.

Life # 2: I was standing on the corner of a busy street in Olongapo, Philippines when one of my shipmates stumbled drunkenly past me intent on crossing the street. He lunged into the roadway just as a Jeepnee ( a brightly painted open taxicab) came speeding towards him. I grabbed him by the back of his collar and pulled him back onto the sidewalk just as the Jeepnee zoomed past. In his drunken state my shipmate never even saw the jipnee that had almost killed him and simply assumed someone was trying to mug him. He turned around to face me and knocked me nearly unconscious with a drunken round-house punch that landed solidly just above my left ear. The next day when he had sobered up, several witnesses explained to him how close he had come to being run down and how he owed me not only an apology, but probably his life. To his credit, I never paid for a beer in his presence for the rest of the time we were shipmates.

Life # 3: Once while I was in Paris with my High School Jazz band I happened to be standing with a small crowd waiting to cross the street. A British tourist standing next to me followed his instincts and looked the wrong way before stepping boldly off the curb into the path of an oncoming bus. I was one of two sets of hands that pulled him out of the street just as the bus passed the spot where we were standing. Even with two sets of hands pulling this guy backwards the bus still managed to hit him very hard with the bottom of one of its mirrors... hard enough to upon a very messy cut on the side of his head. I am pretty sure that just one set of hands would not have been fast or strong enough to pull him (mostly) out of harm's way.

Life #4: On one of many trips to the Grand Canyon I hiked down the Bright Angel trail towards the bottom. About a third of the way down at one of the numerous switch-backs that the trail takes, I happened to be passing a young woman who was standing off the trail trying to take a picture of the canyon. Apparently she was so caught up in trying to frame her shot just so that she didn't realize she had backed onto a patch of loose sand and gravel at the edge of a steep drop-off. As I passed her I watched her start to flair her arms in a losing battle with balance and gravity and start to topple over the embankment at the turn in the switch-back. I made an off-balance grab for her and luckily managed to get hold of one of the straps on her knapsack. I managed to stop most of her outward momentum, but I quickly started to loose ground as well and felt my feet starting to slip. A hiker just behind me managed to both anchor himself and grab my belt before we both tumbled over the cliff. I almost threw up from the adrenaline rushing through my system.

And the other 78 (with pictures!): 

When our ship reached the boat we confirmed that it was full of Vietnamese refugees and that their boat was severely overloaded and in danger of being swamped by even the gentle swells that broke over the gunwales.  We immediately began organizing a rescue party.  I was one of the people who volunteered to go over the side and help bring them aboard.

In all there were 78 people stuffed into that tiny wooden boat; 34 men, 26 women and 18 children.  They had left Vietnam more than two weeks earlier with enough fuel and supplies for a week, but after their fuel had run out they had drifted out of the shipping lanes and into an area where they were not likely to be found.   Many of the elderly were suffering from dehydration and heat stroke, and several of the parents were semi-conscious from malnutrition and dehydration because they had been giving their meager rations to their children.

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The Rebirth of Hebrew

I have at times been critical of the usual story of the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language (last time here). Usually they focus on the fact that the ancient Hebrew language lacked vocabulary for many aspects of modern life, and on the heroic story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who discovered and invented many of the missing terms, and raised the first Hebrew-speaking child in 2000 years. My instinctive criticism has been based on a single observation: it is extremely difficult for an adult to learn a foreign language, and it almost never happens that a person will feel completely comfortable speaking a language acquired in adulthood. And yet, millions of Jews did exactly that. For no practical reason, they abandoned their mother tongues for Hebrew - a language, at the time, spoken by nobody. 

This is the real story of the rebirth of Hebrew: that millions of people were persuaded to do this highly unnatural act. It is indeed a miracle (at least, if you will, in the sense of a seemingly highly unlikely event) that millions of Jews suddenly began speaking a "dead" language. It is an event unique in human history, and it is very surprising to me that it has been so little studied with any seriousness.

Before I get into what I contend is the real story, let me review the usual one (all of which is true, by the way, just not as interesting). It goes like this: Hebrew was kept alive for thousands of years after it ceased to be spoken, as a language of scholarship and ritual, through the love of the Jewish people. Toward the end of the 19th century, Jews began to leave their ghettos and participate in modern life. This was accompanied by a flourishing of the Hebrew language, such as hadn't been seen since the Golden Era of Spain, in which Jews wrote in Hebrew about all aspects of life. Eliezer Ben Yehuda moved to the Land of Israel, then ruled by the Turks (the region was not yet called Palestine - that name would be be applied by the British only after World War I) and endeavored to bring about the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language. To this end, he compiled a dictionary of 500,000 items, rediscovering Hebrew's lost vocabulary, and inventing hundreds of new terms. He also raised the first Hebrew-speaking family. Others followed his lead, and spoken Hebrew was reborn.

While very nice, no part of this story is unique, except the part that is left unexplained. There are many, many unspoken languages that have been kept alive over long periods of time as literary or ritual languages, among them: Latin, Ancient Greek, Coptic, Ge'ez, Sanskrit, Avestan, Classical Arabic (as different from modern dialects as Latin is to Italian), and Classical Chinese - none of them have been revived as a spoken language. On the other hand, many unwritten dialects have been elevated to written languages: At the time of the rebirth of Hebrew, ethnic minorities around the world were rediscovering their identities, and many spoke languages that lacked vocabulary for modern life. Ben Yehuda's work was certainly important for the revival of Hebrew, and he is justifiably celebrated, but similar things happened in Czech, Modern Greek, Finnish, and many other languages. Unexplained: How were millions of ordinary Jews convinced to abandon their mother tongues?

I have finally discovered the answer, the missing link to the story. On the recommendation of Amritas, I ordered a copy of Language In Time of Revolution by Benjamin Harshav. It is not an easy read. It's written in a dry and academic style, so for lack of time and energy I read only the second of its three parts, which deals directly with the rebirth of Hebrew. (The first part deals with the historical background, and the third with Harshav's translations of primary sources.)

In the last decades of Turkish rule of what would become Israel (at the time there was no one name that referred to the whole area), the language of government was Turkish, the peasants spoke the local dialect of Arabic (which even to this day is not written), the Jews spoke various languages, especially Arabic and Yiddish, and education, such as it was, was mostly conducted in French and German. It was in this milieu that small groups of highly motivated Jews founded new communities of like-minded people with the specific purpose of creating a Jewish community that would embody their ideals, one of which was to speak Hebrew. The new communities included the city of Tel Aviv, numerous small kibbutzim, and other agricultural communities. It is important to understand that these were small self-selected groups: they did something that the vast majority are unwilling, or unable, to do.

It was within this small, self-selected population that Hebrew was reborn as a spoken language. 

But it is not the end of the story: So a small group of isolated, highly motivated, energetic people managed to revitalize Hebrew. How, then, did their numbers grow to the millions that they are today? 

After World War I, Turkey was defeated, and its empire divided between France and Britain. The League of Nations crafted the British Mandate to, among other things, "secure the establishment of the Jewish national home" in Palestine, and Jews began to organize themselves into the polity which was to become Israel. (Actually, even in Turkish times the various religious groups had a certain degree of autonomy, in what was called the millet system, which was preserved under the British Mandate, and persists in Israel to this day.) The Palestinian Jews were heterogeneous - religiously, politically, and linguistically. The dominant languages among them were Arabic and Yiddish, neither of which were used for intellectual purposes. Indeed, the intellectual languages had been French and German, but were about to be superseded by English. This state of diversity and flux was probably a contributing factor to the success of Hebrew, but was not, in my opinion, the main one, especially considering the fact that almost all Hebrew speakers at the time were native speakers of Yiddish, which could easily have followed the path of development of languages such as Czech. The reason Hebrew succeeded: The same, self-selected, group that pioneered the revitalization of Hebrew also became the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine.

And from then on, we are back to ordinary sociolinguistic processes. It has happened many, many times that a language spoken by a small but important group of people has supplanted a much more widely-spoken language. To name just a few instances from historical times (many more can be reconstructed from linguistic evidence): Latin in the western Mediterranean, Greek in the eastern Mediterranean, Arabic in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and North Africa, Hungarian in Hungary, English in Ireland. In Palestine, at the beginning of the 20th century, that language was Hebrew.


ADDENDUM: At the end of book 2, Harshav examines the question of whether modern Hebrew is really a "European" language. While he doesn't go quite so far as to say that it is, he seems to think that it has been heavily Europeanized. I take issue with this claim. First of all, a speaker of modern Hebrew can understand the language of the Bible about as easily as a speaker of modern English can understand its King James translation, and Mishnaic (Talmudic) Hebrew is about as close to modern Hebrew as 17th or 18th-century English is to the modern language. That's pretty close, I would say. Harshav quotes a typical paragraph from a newspaper, and has this to say about it:

1. International words: kilometer, television, Antarctica, July, cabinet, Africa, NBC.

2. New Hebrew words for international terms: race, [television] networks, missile, launched, report, nuclear weapons, Minister of Trade and Industry, area (in the sense of geographical area), the United States.

3. Phrases that represent Euro-American concepts: "has broadcast information stating that," "a certain place," "standard version," "denied reports," "nuclear weapons," "fifth of July," "Israel will not be the first," "confined himself to stating the standard version"

4. The microsyntax, concerning contiguous words, or immediate constituents, is essentially Hebrew: the coordination of verb and noun; the use of the definite article, prepositions, and connectives; the genitive phrases. Yet, the macrosyntax is European: the sentence in the first paragraph accumulates five stages of states of affairs, which could not be done in the syntax of traditional texts.

I find points 1-3 very odd. How can you talk about things that go on in the modern world without having words for them? Are those words intrinsically Euro-American because the objects and concepts they refer to were mostly invented by Euro-Americans? He even admits in the next paragraph that: "the roots of most of the words are Hebrew or quasi-Hebrew"! Point 4 is more interesting, it is the point I was addressing in the link above. It seems to me that the major transformation in the (written) language was not from Semitic to European, but from a language meant to be spoken to a language meant to be read. The Mishnaic texts were transmitted orally before they were written down, and their "macrosyntax" reflects that. A similar observation can be made in English when comparing the works of Chaucer (which were meant to be read aloud) to modern texts. For that matter, even today a well-written speech will have simplified sentence structure. Would you say that the language of Chaucer and Reagan is really Semitic? It should be pointed out that all this European macrosyntax is achieved in Hebrew with the ancient set of particles, in other words the difference is one of degree not kind: no new kind of sentence structure has been invented. Indeed, the Hebrew of Maimonides (1135-1204), who was a native Arabic (Semitic language) speaker, has a macrosyntax not far from the modern idiom. Is complex sentence structure a European characteristic or simply a modern one? Put another way, does a reading (as opposed to listening) audience inevitably lead to more complex sentence structure? I would be interested in data from other languages.

(Cross-posted at Gene Expression.)

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June 27, 2005

What do female martyrs get?

From the Telegraph (Via Solomonia):

One of the inmates, Ayat Allah Kamil, 20, from Kabatya, told me why she had wanted to become a martyr: "Because of my religion. I'm very religious. For the holy war [jihad] there's no difference between men and women shahid [martyrs]."

According to the Koran, male martyrs are welcomed to Paradise by 72 beautiful virgins. Ayat, as with many of the women she is incarcerated with, believes that a woman martyr "will be the chief of the 72 virgins, the fairest of the fair".

I always wondered about that.

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IQ Plague

It seems (from private correspondence) that many people missed the main point of my Cochran, Hardy, Harpending post. (Amritas got it.) So I'll try again.

A while back I speculated about the possibility of a meme plague: that because we decide on our course in life through our reason and emotions, rather than automatically going with "what worked" in the past, cultural transmission can resemble more an infection than an inheritance, and when it does it results not in steadily increasing fitness but in random fitness change, which may well be negative. In fact, all things being equal, since we have been evolving for fitness for so long it is almost inevitable that major changes will result in decreasing fitness. (All things are not equal: our reason/emotions seem pretty at guiding us to survival, but they're not so good at fertility.) As a result, the most insulated from the meme plague, who cleave most tightly to their traditional cultures will almost inevitably have an evolutionary advantage. Those who are in the forefront of western culture like to style themselves as being more "intelligent" than the rest of us. I have a feeling that this is true, and as a result they have lower fertility. Is there an intrinsic connection between high IQ and lower fertility? I think that this too is true. In other words, not only are high-IQ people more suseptable to meme plagues in general, they have a specific bias toward low fertility.

The Cochran, Hardy, Harpending paper (pdf) makes a big assumption: that in an intellectually challenging environment, higher IQ will necessarily result in higher fertility. Why? Because, as they have succinctly put it, with more money you can buy more food. Here's my problem with that argument: It is hard for me to think of any profession or lifestyle in which higher IQ doesn't help you out. Life is full of problems, and IQ helps you to solve them. Therefore, as Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending reason in another context, IQ must have fitness costs as well as benefits, otherwise all populations would have rising IQs. How many really smart people also had large families? Darwin was one, but I can't think of many others. Newton? Einstein? Washington? Jefferson? Tesla? Ford? All these people lived in a time and place when most people had large families, but they didn't.

I have a hunch as to what that is, too. Human beings look for a reason to live. Most of us find that reason in our friends and family, and especially in our children. People with high IQ are apt to find it in their ideas. 

Which is all well and good as far as I'm concerned, but it does mean that high-IQ people tend to be less fit, from an evolutionary perspective, than people with lower IQ (up to a point, of course). But what would happen if you put a group of people in an environment so intellectually challenging, that you needed that high IQ merely to survive? Well, the first thing that would happen would be a big die-off. The low-IQ people would have difficulty with survival, while the high-IQ people will have have difficulty with fertility. But, given enough time and diversity, some people will inevitably be somehow able to combine the virtues of both, and evolution guarantees that these people will will increase in number and become the modal type.

Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending seem to assume that given an IQ-challenging environment, high-IQ will inevitably lead to higher fertility. It seems to me that more than that is needed to overcome the problem. One obvious possibility is that Ashkenazis have genetically evolved not only for IQ, but also for some other thing - let's call it the IQ antidote. This is clearly not true: Ashkenazis now, in general, have one of the world's lowest fertility rates. Their genes haven't changed in the last 2-3 generations (in which they have experienced plummeting birthrates). But something has happened. They have stopped practicing Judaism. I think that what Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending have observed is the evolution of a gene-meme symbiosis: the genes provied the IQ, and the memes provided the IQ-antidote which protected them from infertility. In other words, the key factor in producing the high-IQ Ashkenazi profile (along with the other phenomena that Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending point out) may not have been the economic sector in which they specialized: it may have been but Judaism itself.

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Mandarin Syllables

Cool chart of Mandarin syllables. There are 22 initials and 35 finals. Add the four tones, and you get a theoretical maximum of 3080 possible syllables. But, as you can see from the chart, only about two-thirds of the possibilities are actually used, which means that Mandarin uses only around 2000 syllables (I didn't count). For those 2000 syllables, it has tens of thousands of characters!

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June 24, 2005

I Guess I'm Jewish after all

According to Belief-O-Matic I'm (via Grumbles):

1. Orthodox Judaism (100%)
2. Reform Judaism (98%)
3. Islam (94%)
4. Sikhism (93%)
5. Bah�'� Faith (87%)
6. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (63%)
7. Jainism (62%)
8. Liberal Quakers (62%)
9. Unitarian Universalism (55%)
10. Jehovah's Witness (53%)
11. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (52%)
12. Neo-Pagan (51%)
13. Mahayana Buddhism (51%)
14. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (48%)
15. Hinduism (48%)
16. Orthodox Quaker (46%)
17. Eastern Orthodox (45%)
18. Roman Catholic (45%)
19. Seventh Day Adventist (43%)
20. Theravada Buddhism (39%)
21. New Age (38%)
22. Scientology (34%)
23. New Thought (29%)
24. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (24%)
25. Secular Humanism (16%)
26. Taoism (12%)
27. Nontheist (10%)

How about you?

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June 23, 2005

June 21, 2005

Cochran, Hardy, Harpending, and me

I haven't posted anything to my blog in over a week, being very busy lately, and with the Shavu`ot holiday taking up a couple of days in the middle. There is also another reason: this paper (pdf), which was reported on by the New York Times, and The Economist, to name a few, and picked up on across the blogosphere. Gene Expression, which has been talking about this subject for a while, has a series of posts up on the subject:

Natural history of Ashkenazi I.Q.
The Urban Sink
Bad science?
The history of the Jews...a very special people...sort of
Medieval Jewish achievement
Metzenberg on Jews

Briefly, for those who have not yet heard about it, the paper (Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending) claims that the average IQ of Ashkenazis is around 115, about one standard deviation above the general average of 100, and that this is the result of natural selection acting on an Ashkanazi population which for centuries specialized in intellectually demanding tasks like commerce and banking. 

One of the consequences of this selection pressure, they claim, is the spread among the Ashkenazi population of genetic diseases which have the a effect of raising intelligence. They hypothesize that common Ashkenazi genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Dysautonomia are among them.

As one of the specimens under the microscope, I have been following the Ashkenazi selection debate with keenly-felt trepidation and intense curiosity. Curiosity, because, well, they're talking about me. Trepidation, because it puts the Jews under a dangerous spotlight - those who claim that such fears are out of date need only look at the generation that experienced the Holocaust: they thought the same thing - and the rising anti-Semitism among the Left and around the world.

Which doesn't mean that I think it should be suppressed. While a case can be made that this piece of knowledge or that does more harm than good in the world (nuclear bombs, for example) the only way to suppress knowledge is totalitarianism, and that bears a far higher price. You can't get away from the problem: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, who will decide which knowledge is permissible and which not? The only way forward is to seek the truth, and deal with it. The proper response to truth is more truth. Just don't forget your morals along the way, or the possibility that you might be wrong.

Overall, I find the paper's thesis extremely plausible (I feel no need to actually make a judgment: its conclusions are testable, though the precise historical mechanism isn't - we will soon find out). Natural selection is everywhere, you can't get away from it. Every population is selected for its habitat, including our own at this time. In that vein, I would like to add some observations. First of all, intellectually demanding occupations were not the only characteristic of the Ashkenazi environment. For example: Ashkenazis have been living in an urban environment for over 1000 years, I would expect some adaptations to reflect that. Another thing: Judaism. For example, Judaism prohibits sex during menstruation (but for a minimum of 5 days), plus 7 days thereafter, so women with short cycles or long periods can have trouble conceiving. Do Jewish woman have more regular cycles as a result?

And what about the other way around? The paper implicitly denys or minimizes the role of Judaism in Ashkenazi intellectual success. The tradition of sending sons to school at age 3, Talmudic study, and the intellectual character of Judaism in general, would be a correlated side-effect rather than causal factor, according to this story. But perhaps it has a different role, perhaps Judaism is an evolved response to the Jewish habitat? Hygiene, for example: Jews are required to wash their hands after urinating or defecating, and before eating. 

But that is of little relevance in this day and age. More relevant: it is striking to me how much the historical habitat of the Jews resembles today's habitat for everyone. IQ is correlated with economic success in today's world like never before. Agriculture occupys a tiny fraction of the population. The vast majority are urban. And fertility today is below replacement rate in every modern society - as has been historically true for urban populations in general. Moreover, the tendency of high-IQ individuals having low fertility seems to an ancient pattern. How many children did Aristote or Plato have? The founding fathers of the US? The professors of Oxford and Cambridge? The Jewish population, urban, intellectual, fit this pattern: it was in decline for many centuries (10% of the Roman Empire was once Jewish, that would correspond to hundreds of millions today). Perhaps after centuries in their challenging habitat, Jewish culture evolved mechanisms for its survival? Observant Jews, with a birthrate of 4.5 children per woman, are likely the US's most fertile native-born urban population. In contrast, non-observant Jews are one of the least fertile sectors of the US population (way below replacement rate).

What can these mechanisms be? Well, for one thing, as I indicated above, Judaism strongly encourages sex on the 14th day of a woman's cycle (the first day that it is permitted, usually the night of the 13th day by non-Jewish reckoning, since the day begins at sundown) - just when she is most likely to be ovulating, and in general the religion encourages sex between husband and wife. But more important than that, I think, Judaism has strong cultural institutions for maintaining society against the background of urban life. 

(I have frequently talked about this subject in the past, for example hereherehere.)

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Trackback from Hatshepsut, Stupid is who stupid does.. and vice versa:
Rishon Rishon's David is currently very occupied with this discussion on Jew's and their abnormally high IQ's. I personally do not like the strong faith people appear to have in intelligence tests. It is far too often that I've heard...

June 12, 2005


Tonight is the holiday of Shavu`ot (שבועות). Shavu`ot, in Hebrew, means 'weeks', referring to the following passage:

 וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת
 מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה
  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה
עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת
תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם
 וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַה'

Usfartem lakhem mimahorat hashabat
Miyom havi'akhem et `omer hat'nufa
Sheva` shabatot t'mimot tihyeyna
`Ad mimahorat hashabat hashvi`it
Tisp'ru hamishim yom
V'hiqravtem minha hadasha laH'

And you will count to yourselves from the day after the [Passover] holiday
From the day of your bringing the sheaf-waving [offering]
Seven complete weeks there will be
Until the day after the seventh week
You will count fifty days
And you will offer a new meal-offering to the Lord

Leviticus 23:15-16

In other words, from the day after Passover, you count seven weeks (49 days) and on the 50th day you make a holiday (חג) - hag. That is the holiday of Shavu'ot - Weeks. It is often called Pentecost in English, from the Greek word for 50.

Like most Jewish holidays, Shavu`ot is multifaceted. It celebrates the wheat harvest, the bringing of the first-fruits, and the giving of the Tora. There is a custom of eating milk products on this day, and Tiqun Leyl Shavu`ot (תיקון ליל שבועות) - The Fixing of the Night of Shavu`ot, in which you stay up all night and study Tora.

On Shavu`ot the Book of Ruth is read. Ruth is the paradigmatic convert to Judaism (not just in the literary sense, a lot of the laws of conversion are derived from the Book of Ruth). A convert to Judaism, like the Jews at Mount Sinai, is one who explicitly receives the Tora. It is something that Jews are supposed to do every day, but especially on Shavu`ot.

More about Shavu`ot here.

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June 09, 2005

Khoisan Clicks

Amritas mentions the Khoisan languages in his latest post. The Khoisan languages are famous for having clicks as regular phonemes. I have always been curious about how these sounds are integrated into the language, so I did some searching and found a clip from The Click Song, by Miriam Makeba. (You can buy the whole song here.) I would be interested in longer (free) samples of Khoisan languages. If anyone can direct me to them, I would be most thankful.

Also check out !Xóõ - no, that's not a comic-book curse, !Xóõ is a Khoisan language. If I understand correctly, the exclamation point is a post-dental click and the X is a velar fricative (like kh in my Hebrew transcription).

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:44 AM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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June 07, 2005

Why smart people defend bad ideas

Essential reading for smart people (via John Hawks):

Majoring in logic is not the kind of thing that makes people want to talk to you at parties, or read your essays. But one thing I did learn after years of studying advanced logic theory is that proficiency in argument can easily be used to overpower others, even when you are dead wrong. If you learn a few tricks of logic and debate, you can refute the obvious, and defend the ridiculous. If the people you’re arguing with aren’t as comfortable in the tactics of argument, or aren’t as arrogant as you are, they may even give in and agree with you. The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. This is bad. Worse, if they got away with it when they were young (say, because they were smarter than their parents, their friends, and their parent’s friends) they’ve probably built an ego around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death. Smart people often fall into the trap of preferring to be right even if it’s based in delusion, or results in them, or their loved ones, becoming miserable.
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June 06, 2005

Rest In Peace, Bunker

It's hard for me to express my sadness and shock at the news of Bunker's death. It was past midnight last night when I visited his blog and found out. I wanted to respond immediately, but was too confused and overcome with emotion to do so. Never have I felt more strongly the adage that you don't know what you have till it's gone.

I visited Bunker's blog almost every day for more than a year, and he visited mine. We almost never communicated directly, even by email or comment. Yet we linked to each other, and inspired each other - at least he me. Though I know from my statistics that I have quite a few readers, I don't get feedback from many, and on certain topics that I consider some of the most important, I get even less. Bunker was one of the few who seemed to get the message.

For all that, the medium of the Internet is so incorporeal that my cyber-relationships have a dreamlike quality to them. I don't fully believe that they are real. Last night, when I learned of Bunker's death, I was reminded that they are. I will miss him.

Michael James Reed
"Bunker Mulligan"

Rest In Peace

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:38 AM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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June 05, 2005

Reality Catches Up

Reality Check (via Instapundit):

This is part of the fun of following politics: the relation to reality is generally delayed, but is always there in the end. Unreal schemes often appear and even dominate for a time - fascism, Communism, the League of Nations are examples. But the truth eventually finds them out. I am sure that the "ever-closer Union" on which the European Union has been built from the beginning is one of these unreal schemes, since it believes in two falsities - uniformity where in fact there is diversity, and the primacy of government over people. The two main instruments by which truth reaches politics are votes and markets, which is why political Utopians instinctively dislike both.
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Barukh Dayan Emet

I wish to extend condolences to Maria of Hatshepsut, on the death of her grandmother. 

The traditional Jewish response on hearing of a death is:

ברוך דין אמת

Barukh Dayan Emet

Blessed is the True Judge

The only thing that can be done in the presence of the ultimate tragedy is to accept the truth. And the only consolation is the thought that, somehow, it is part of God's plan.

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June 02, 2005

Education for life

I'm very busy a the moment (for a hint at what I'm doing you can look here), but I'd like to take some time out for some quick comments on Amritas's latest post. He makes the radical statement that higher education isn't for everyone, and points to an article by John Ray called Down With Education! I basically agree with them, but I would like to briefly mention some things that I think the education system could do, but doesn't.

As John points out, there are two major goals of education: to teach skills that will be useful in life, and to create good citizens. I would like to add to this a third: to expose students to life's possibilities. Most people graduate from the educational system (whether at the High School or University level) with very little idea about their options. If you ask students about their career goals, for example (to pick just one aspect of life), your answers will be something like this:

  • Teacher
  • Movie Star
  • Sports player
  • Rock star
  • Doctor
  • Lawyer
  • Scientist
  • Father's/Mother's profession

This is, to put it mildly, a very unrepresentative picture of the true nature of the possibilities, both in terms of scope and proportion. These are simply the possibilities that are visible to the average student. But there is a big world out there, it would be nice to know something about it before you get there.

I think that this can be addressed. I think that every year (at least the four years of High School) students should take a course which is devoted to simply describing the workings of different industries - I can't think of a good name for it at the moment, any suggestions are welcome. The way it would work would be to take an industry - say food production - and describe all its components, e.g. what the farmers do - who they buy from, sell to, what are the factors which influence their decisionmaking, what are the different jobs in the industry, what are the skills that are required for the different jobs - then do the same for the people they sell to or buy from. Industries should be chosen based on their prominence in the economy, and diversity (i.e. their inner working are different from each other). I even think that government agencies should be covered - after all they really are potential career choices! Four years of this, and you can cover a lot of ground, and people would come out of it understanding a lot more about how the world works, and what their possibilities really are.

It seems to me that most students would consider this a fun course - it doesn't involve mathematics, and doesn't require good writing skills. Fun and useful, what could be better?

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:52 AM  Permalink | Comments (8)
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Trackback from joannejacobs.com, College for all:
All public high school students in Los Angeles Unified would have to take the college-prep sequence required by California's public universities, under a proposal before the school board. Teachers and counselors at Hollywood High told the LA Times that...

June 01, 2005

Send Celestial Blue to Israel!

Celestial Blue is trying to finance a study trip to Israel. And she is selling beautiful blue bracelets, which gives you the chance to help her out. So go for it!

I might add that I'm familiar with the program she wants to go on, and I highly approve.

Her bracelets say: `am yisra'el hay (עם ישראל חי) - "the people of Israel live", or more colloquially: "Long live the people of Israel!".

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:15 AM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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