What does it mean?

September 28, 2005

Everything looks like a nail

Razib writes a nice post in support of logic and reason, pointing out its precarious hold on the human mind, which by its nature is not especially logical or reasonable. Logic and reason have to be defended anew with every generation, and this generation has produced the intellectual adversary of post-modernism.

I don't expect it to even come close to winning, as long as the economic system remains more-or-less intact. Logic and reason enable us to make things that people value, like bridges that don't fall down, and medicine that really cures people. As long as there are people who will reward the activities that produce them, there will be people who engage in them, and who, of necessity, will make use of logic and reason, because it works.

Having said that, there are plenty of economically-rewarded activities in which logic and reason play little or no role, particularly in the realms of arts and leisure. I expect them to continue too. The intellectual debates which go on in the philosophy departments of universities, and between religious scholars, are largely irrelevant to these economic forces. Which is a good thing, to my mind, since I am a big fan of logic and reason.

Some of you might be surprised to hear that from me, since I have been seemingly critical of logic and reason in the past. But my problem is not with them per se, but with the common notion that anything non-logical is by definition illogical. In fact, it is illogical and unreasonable to apply logic and reason to many aspects of our human experience. Here are some of my problems:

1. Logic and reason are inherently post-facto modes of thinking, they cannot encompass innovation (except, of course, by testing its truth value, post-facto).

2. We use the non-logical part of our mind to solve most real-world problems (e.g. speaking, walking, image recognition) with remarkable speed and accuracy.

3. Our ultimate goals are, by definition, non-logical. Everybody has non-logical goals which are very important to them. When people don't recognize their non-logical goals, they are left unexamined.

What these three points have in common is the observation that the human mind is not primarily logical: that logic is not the most powerful tool in the tool-chest of the human mind, and that the fundamental experience of being human has little to do with logic.While I expect that the vast majority of humanity wouldn't argue with me on any of these points (not least because they uninterested in logically examining the subject), I happen to spend a great deal of time among a small minority of humanity that over-applies logic, and as a result enjoys life less than they otherwise would.

It reminds me of the joke about a man who has loses his keys at night, and is looking for them under a lamppost:

Passer-by: Where did you lose your keys?

Man: Over there, in the dark.

Passer-by: Then why are you looking for them over here, under this lamppost?

Man: This is where the light is.

People who are over-dependent on logic tend to dismiss as unimportant those parts of the world, and of themselves, that are non-logical. And as a result they are less happy than they could be. Is that logical? Of course not. Why would logical people do such a thing? It is because they, like all of us, have a secret wish to see the light, to posses the tool which enables them to understand all things. Since this non-logical goal is left unexamined, they never figure out that logic isn't it. As it is said: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Here are three overlapping, non-logical goals to which logic can be applied:

1. To manipulate the environment (e.g. build useful things)

2. To be happy

3. To be evolutionarily successful (i.e. survive and reproduce)

Logic and reason have been very successful in promoting goal #1, but not particularly successful (so far) in promoting goal #2. And if you have the non-logical goal of promoting goals #1 and #2 beyond your own life, you should make sure that your strategies don't impair goal #3, otherwise they will die out.

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Trackback from Solomonia, The Limits of Logic:
David Boxenhorn has a very nice post on the limits of strict logic....

September 26, 2005

Linguistic Entropy

I am embarrassed when, from time to time around the blogosphere, I see myself referred to as a linguist, or my blog as a linguistic blog. Though I might know a lot about linguistics compared to most people, compared to a real linguist I don't know very much at all. I write about linguistics a lot because it interests me, and because I don't feel that a blog post requires a high degree of professionalism. I write about what I think about, with the conceit that it might be of interest to others as well.

One of the reasons that have something linguistic to think about is that I live in a bilingual environment: primarily English in the home, Hebrew outside the home, and my children are growing up perfectly bilingual (which I think is a wonderful thing!), so I'm surrounded by a wealth of material. One small example: most English speakers have trouble with the Israeli trilled r-sound (there are actually a few varieties, which I'd like to talk about someday in a post on Hebrew pronunciation). But my children all learned the Israeli 'r' years before the English 'r'! Even though their English was better than their Hebrew when they were small. Who'd've thunk it?

One of the observations that has fascinated me most over the years is how features of Hebrew creep into the native language of English-speaking expats - even when they don't know Hebrew very well! Of course, it's natural that the expats' Hebrew is full of features from English - learning a language is hard! But what can account for the borrowing of features from a foreign language into your mother tongue? It would seem to be counter-instinctive.

I got to thinking about these things again after reading the first two installments of Amritas's latest series, on the role of grammar in historical linguistics. It seems to me that second-language learning must play a large role in historical linguistics. People are always moving about, either as individuals or groups, and the resulting linguistic contact must result in language change. Sanskrit, for example, seems to me like Indo-European with a Dravidian accent. (Dravidian is the major pre-Indo-European language group of India.) The English of Ireland has obvious Celtic features. Modern Hebrew has obvious Yiddish features. And I'm sure that if we knew the pre-Indo-European languages of Europe, we'd see clearly how they influenced the development of Indo-European on that continent. (We do have one pre-Indo-European language left: Basque. I wonder if it is any use for this purpose? As an aside from an aside, the likely reason for the survival of Basque is genetic: The Basques have primarily Rh- blood, which makes it hard for them to successfully intermarry with their neighbors who, like most people, are Rh+.) 

But what about the other direction? I can classify the features of Hebrew imported into expat-English into three categories: 

1. Open-class words
2. Closed-class words
3. Grammar

Open class words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs. These are not particularly interesting to me. This is the category of easily-learned words, and they tend to be borrowed by English speakers for things not commonly found or done in their countries of origin. (Often the word exists in English, but not as part of people's day-to-day vocabulary, in other words the Hebrew term is more familiar than the English one.)

All other words are closed-class words (so named because they are categories not usually added to). There are a few words in this category which Hebrew speakers often wonder how English speakers can do without - for good reason, they are often borrowed by bilingual English speakers into their native language! Three that immediately come to mind: davqa (דוקא), stam (סתם), and bizkhut (בזכות). These are all words that I have trouble defining, because not only are they lacking in English, but their definition depends totally on usage. Davqa introduces a phrase that is contrary, or is in some way in opposition to what you might expect, or what was the natural flow of events. Stam introduces something that is not important, or not specified, or is not for any particular reason. Bizkhut means "because", but implys "because of the good qualities of".

The most interesting category, to me, is grammar. Since learning foreign grammar is so hard, it seems totally counter-intuitive for it to be borrowed into your native language. Yet I see it happens. My theory for when it happens: It happens when Hebrew grammar is cognitively easier for the human mind than English grammar. One example: the use of "whose" in English. Consider:

The boy whose mother I know.

In Israeli expat English you often hear:

The boy that I know his mother.

Which is a literal translation of:

Hayeled she'ani makir et imo. (הילד שאני מכיר את אמו)

the-boy that-I know <object marker> mother-his.

If I were a Chomskyan, I would say that the Hebrew construction is closer to the deep structure of the sentence than the English. Much correspondence with Amritas has convinced me that my former respect for Chomskyan grammar was due to my shallow understanding of it. In other words, I think that Chomskyan deep structures work only when they are very shallow. I don't believe people really think in deep structures, which they transform to surface structures. In fact, I can imagine complex sentences that I might have trouble formulating, such as: "The boy whose mother gave me the book I returned to the library yesterday". I can imagine having the thought clearly in my mind, working to express it, and I don't think it's sitting in a Chomskyan deep structure that I'm having trouble transforming. It's sitting in a non-linguistic place that's almost visual, a multi-dimensional space which is intrinsically hard to express in one-dimensional language. 

So if I'm not a Chomskyan what do I think? I think that language is a tool, which we use to communicate thoughts (and sometimes, but not necessarily, to think). Like all tools, it can be easier or harder to use - in the same way that we could use a hammer that is not well-suited to our hands, but more easily use one that is. And like language, it could well be that someone who has used the not-well suited hammer all his life will still find it easier, when finally introduced to the well-suited one. (In fact, there is also a difference between ease of use and ease of learning, which might well be important.)

It is as if some grammatical features require more cognitive energy than others, and when presented with a choice the mind will naturally choose the lower-energy solution. It would be fascinating to study the language of expats from a large variety of linguistic backgrounds, immersed in a wide variety of foreign languages, and make a of table of features "unnaturally" borrowed into their native languages, and the features that are replaced. The result, I think, would be an entropy graph of linguistic features: each time a native feature is replaced by a foreign feature we could say that the native feature is at a higher energy level than the foreign feature that replaced it.

One complication: I think that grammatical background is important in measuring linguistic entropy. By way of comparison, one kind of arrow might have lower entropy (= higher energy level) with one kind of bow, but higher entropy with a another kind of bow. English and Hebrew are similar in being basically isolating, inflected languages. So I don't think that the "whose" comparison necessarily holds, or even has meaning against, say, a polysynthetic linguistic background.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:24 PM  Permalink | Comments (4)
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Hefker Velt (הפקר וועלט)

Jonathan Rosenblum writes an interesting article about schools in Israel, which he claims are terrible. (My personal impression of Israeli schools is quite good, but I come from the US, which is not known for its good schools.) Luckily, in Israel there is some school choice - not as official policy, but as a side effect of Israel's tolerance for diversity. The article describes one of its results. 

One of the expressions used in the article is 'hefker velt', which it translates as 'a world in which anything goes'. This is somewhat impressionistic translation, it being out of place in the article to translate it more precisely. So I will do it here: It is a Yiddish expression, 'velt' means (and is transparently cognate to) English 'world'. 'Hefker' is from Hebrew hefqer (הפקר), and it doesn't have a one-word translation into English, though it is a common word in Hebrew. Something that is hefqer is not owned by anyone. For example shetah hefqer (שטח הפקר) means no-man's land (more literally: no-man's territory). When broken windows are not fixed, it gives a feeling of hefqerut (הפקרות) - hefqer-ness, a feeling that nobody's in charge, that anything goes.

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September 25, 2005

Israel is worse than any other civilized country?

Zman Biur has come out with the promised second installment of his series on road accidents in Israel. Did you know:

Israel ranks 6th. That is, only five countries had a lower fatality rate per capita. The United Kingdom placed 2nd, Japan 7th, Germany 13th, Canada 16th, France 18th, Italy 23rd, the United States a lowly 35th, and South Africa 44th between Russia and Malaysia.

In fact the U.S. fatality rate was more than double Israel's. The average person is twice as likely to be killed on the roads in the U.S.

Of course, that's only one way to measure traffic fatality rates. For more, plus lots of nifty charts and lucid explanation see Mr. Biur's post.

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September 20, 2005

How bad is it in Gaza?

You would think, from what the media say, that Gaza must be the worst place on Earth to live. And of course, it's all Israel's fault. But just how bad is it in Gaza?

Palestinian sources estimated on Tuesday that at least 100 Egyptian brides were smuggled into the Gaza Strip in the past week.

"Most of the brides came from the Egyptian part of Rafah and the town of Al-Arish, which were invaded by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians after the border was left wide open," one source told The Jerusalem Post. He said Palestinian men were encouraged to marry Egyptians mainly because of the low expenses involved, especially the dowry.

"When you compare the situation with the Gaza Strip, it's much cheaper to marry a woman from Egypt," said another source. Some of the men were already married and had decided to take a second or third wife after discovering that Egyptian families were eager to send their daughters to a relatively better life in the Gaza Strip, the source added.

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Must-see video here. As Wretchard says:

It is a short video that focuses on footage of Palestinians besieging an Israeli checkpoint that is used in 60 Minutes. Landes uses the outtakes and a frame by frame analysis to show, convincingly in my view, that much of it was entirely faked. My favorite is the footage of a group of fighters setting up an empty room into which they will later be firing, supposedly in combat with the Israeli checkpoint, then watching the a clip of the same footage, sans the setup, as news. My next favorite scene is viewing the dozen 120 mm main tank cannon 'hits' that were allegedly inflicted on a Palestinian hospital and watching the journalist sagely record what may safely be called evidence of his ballistic ignorance on his own film. Most of it is funny, some of it outrageously so, like the dead men who fall from biers in staged funerals and climb back on again. But what is truly frightening about Pallywood was articulated by the blog Solomonia: "this is very exciting - not just because of the way it exposes this particular scandal, but the way it will cause people to re-examine everything they see in television media. It's very important stuff."

In addition to the obvious points, I was struck by how well the Palestinians were dressed (note: it's a warm climate). No evidence of grinding poverty. And let me share a personal story: I was once touring the Negev with my parents and we happened upon a bucolic scene of a Bedouin boy tending a flock of sheep. We stopped to take a picture. The boy, obviously misconstruing our desires, obligingly picked up a rock and posed for us, as if he were about to throw it. Now where could he have learned to do that?

UPDATE: More videos here.

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Trackback from Solomonia, Posers:
David Boxenhorn links the Second Draft site (you've watched the Pallywood film by now, I hope -- he also links the Egyptian brides story below, btw) and adds a personal anecdote with a couple of points I thought readers would...

September 19, 2005

Aggregating Information: The power of the Web

This is very exciting:

How are we going to mobilize the blogosphere in support of cuts in wasteful spending to support Katrina relief? Here's the plan.

Identify some wasteful spending in your state or (even better) Congressional District. Put up a blog post on it. Go to N.Z. Bear's new PorkBusters page and list the pork, and add a link to your post.

Blogs are really stating to make their presence felt. Well done!  

One suggestion, Mr. Bear: Could you add a scorecard to each entry, so we can track what progress is being made?

UPDATE: Read NZ Bear's post on the subject.

UPDATE: Instapundit steps up to the plate.

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September 18, 2005

A View from the Eye of the Storm: The Book

Do you remember Haim Harari? Well, now you can buy the book. From the review:

In 2004, internationally known physicist Haim Harari was invited to address the advisory board of a major multinational corporation. In a short speech he offered a penetrating analysis of the components of terror, and presented a passionate call for a new era in the Middle East. The speech, entitled "A View from the Eye of the Storm," was not intended for publication, but when a copy was leaked and posted onto the Internet, it caused a worldwide sensation, eventually being translated into more than half a dozen languages. Now -- as the modern era of Islamic terror continues to unfold -- Harari reaches further, to offer this serious yet accessible survey of the landscape of Middle Eastern war and peace at this challenging crossroads in history.

Moving beyond the sterile discourse of foreign affairs journals, Harari encourages the world to view the Middle East through the eyes of a "proverbial taxi driver," a man on the street whose wisdom (and sense of humor) outstrips that of the experts. And, as he observes, to anyone familiar with the Middle East from a taxi driver's perspective, the "persistent ugly storm" engulfing the Arab world is far more than a territorial battle with Israel: It is an "undeclared World War III" that rages from Bali to Madrid, from Nairobi to New York, from Buenos Aires to Istanbul, and from Tunis to Moscow. The sad result is that much of the Arab world has become an "unprecedented breeding ground for cruel dictators, terror networks, fanaticism, incitement, suicide murders, and general decline." And unless the free nations of the world mobilize to stop it, Harari argues, this new world war will continue to cause bloodshed on all continents.

As a fifth-generation Israeli-born observer, Harari includes a thorough response to the conventional wisdom about Middle Eastern affairs, including a frank dissection of the media's lopsided portrait of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Drawing on his family's two centuries of life in the Middle East, he offers a compelling catalog of the steps necessary to reach a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- steps, he writes, that are "inevitable -- not because everybody accepts them today, but because all sides must accept them before peace can be achieved." And he urges the civilized world to combat terror by isolating its state sponsors, blocking its funding, and promoting education, women's equality, and human rights reform.
UPDATE: Take a look at this review:
The author's great-great-grandmother was one of those who lived in Jerusalem in 1844, back when it was a little town in the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire. Back when a census showed it had 7120 Jews, 5760 Muslims, and 3390 Christians (by the way, back then, these 7120 Jews all lived in what some folks today mistakenly call "traditionally Arab East Jerusalem").

Harari was sometimes amazed "by the successful penetration of so much fiction into the facts of the Middle East." He points out that "if someone in the world of science is caught even once in a deliberate lie, he or she is excluded, forever, from the scientific community; no scientist would ever listen to or employ him or her again."

I think this is what we need to do with those "scholars" who spread antizionist lies.

That's a really good point. I've always thought that the problem with the "soft sciences" is lack of objective standards of quality. But telling lies is something that we can judge with a high degree of accuracy - the same degree of accuracy, in fact, that we have in Physics. Why don't we do it? Why do lies get a pass in the soft sciences when it's the highest objective standard that we can apply?

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It just keeps getting worse?

One of my pet peeves is a certain kind of lie that I often see in the MSM, which certain people justify as being good for us even if it is untrue.  Biur Chametz blogs about one of them:
Myth I: It just keeps getting worse

You hear this every time there's a major traffic accident. "It just keeps getting worse, doesn't it? Every year more people are killed!"

Fortunately, this myth is easily dispelled. Annual traffic fatalities are not on an upward trend; far from it.

Anyone care to guess in which year the most Israelis were killed in traffic accidents?
This is the kind of reporting (with easy-to-understand charts, etc.) that I'd like to see from the MSM, but don't. Good thing we have blogs! Now, Mr. Biur*, I'd like to see a similar analysis comparing Israel to countries around the world. As I understand, the chance of dying in a car accident in the US is higher than in Israel (yes, number of miles driven is also higher, but usually you see this complaint in the context of how dangerous Israel is, so this is the relevant figure) - a little known fact.

*Zman Biur means "time of burning" in Hebrew, zman bi`ur (זמן ביעור) in the orthography of this blog. It refers to the burning of Hames (חמץ) - Chametz in Mr. Biur's orthograhpy - unleavened bread, which is done before Passover. Metaphorically, bi`ur hames signifies the getting rid of unneeded things which get in the way of holiness.
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September 13, 2005

Driving to New Orleans

Well I hope this one is for real. This retired soldier put on his old army uniform and drove his own truck down to New Orleans, loaded with supplies. Excerpt (via Daniel in Brookline):

On the way to the food center, a filthy soaking wet teenage girl shouts and runs up to the truck. "My Grandma! my Grandma! Please h'ep". I put her in the passenger seat and she is crying and giving me directions. I cannot understand a word she is saying, as her accent is so thick. I follow her hand signals for a few blocks and we come to a large depression that looks to be way too deep for the deuce. It's up to the roofs of the cars in the street. Why the hell was I too lazy last winter to install the deep water fording kit? I figure if the water stays below my fenders and I go slow enough to not make a bow wave, I'll give it a shot. Several hundred yards further the water gets shallower. There is one house with the water only about a foot deep around it. Standing in the yard are at least 60 people. There was a whole lot of "Praise Jesus!" going on. Then I realized, here were Grandma and all of her kin. My second realization was that they thought I was their knight in shining armor.

They all spoke at once, and I understood not a word. I almost blundered and asked if anyone spoke English. A Blackhawk had dropped food a couple of days earlier, but since then nothing. The water had gone down far enough for the young girl to swim for help. She walked/swam through half a mile of sewage, chemicals, dead bodies, snakes and rats to find me. If there is a hero in this story, she was this bedraggled little girl. We loaded up, put the teenagers on the hood, roof and fenders, Granny and the kids up in the cab.

Can you fit 60 people in and on a deuce? Yes sir, you can. It rides low and slow, but it still moves.

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Saudi Arabia is not New Zealand

I just discovered a remarkable blog, "The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment." Example:

So let's take "Saudi Arabia is not New Zealand". Well, I suppose that explains why they didn't film "Lord of the Rings" here. Only a few mountains, Tolkein never had camels wandering across the horizon, and I don't think Gollum would enjoy all that sun. But the Prince was talking about something else. He was talking about the D-word. He was talking about Democracy.

I guess the point he was trying to make was that while democracy may be OK for New Zealand, it isn't OK for Saudi Arabia. Why make the distinction with New Zealand?. Well, geographically it's thousands of miles away, probably about as far as you can get before you start coming round the other side. Apart from Easter Island, that is. But then he's unlikely to say "Saudi Arabia is not Easter Island", that would be ultra-gnomic and everyone would think he'd completely flipped. So New Zealand it is. Three million rugby and cricket playing sheep-farmers, about as remote culturally and geographically from us as you can get, that's an excellent distinction to draw.

It also meant he didn't have to talk about that more local example of full-blown Western democracy, one whose border is at one point only ten miles from our own, a place where they have a Parliament and a Prime Minister and Elections, a place that we pretend doesn't exist, and it's called...


There. I've said it. Israel. The only democracy between Turkey and India. But now I have to go and wash my mouth out with soap and water, because we're not supposed to talk about it.

UPDATE: And how about this picture of Arabia (link added):

On a lighter note, my thanks to Shari for this photograph. She asks where it's from. Well, it's obviously a Saudi camel, you can tell from the face. You can't avoid loving camels, they'll just sit there all day, totally unfazed. Not like a highly-strung Arabian horse, it'd be two miles down the road by the time you got your camera out, ask Michael Brown. Anyway, the clue is the advertising hoarding at the top right. It's in......Hebrew!

What you can see of the sign says: hanaha (הנחה) - reduction. Used in Hebrew like the word "off" in "20% off" (the "20%", or whatever, is presumably in the top part of the sign, that you can't see in the picture).

UPDATE: Oh, well. You know what they say about things that seem too good to be true? Read this. For me, this was the nail in the coffin - I don't know much Arabic, but I know that Evariste is correct.

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September 12, 2005

Interred with their bones

I went to my little village's makolet (מכולת) - general store last week. Pasted on the window, where announcements of local concern are often posted, was the announcement of the funeral of my neighbor's daughter. I stood stricken. Hypotheses leapt to mind, each more improbable than the last. What is going on? I felt as if I were losing my mind. She died three years agoThen I realized: she had been buried in Gaza. Now she was being re-buried.

It goes without saying that Jews can't live as a minority in Arab Gaza, as over a million Arabs live in Jewish Israel, with full equal rights. It goes without saying that they couldn't live at all, that they would be massacred. Of course they would, why would you think that's strange? It goes without saying that the first thing the Palestinians would do upon occupation of Gush Qatif would be to destroy the synagogues:

"The Palestinians failed in their first task when they did not protect the synagogues left standing in the settlements of Gush Katif," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said on Monday. "The arson of this morning is a barbaric act of people with no respect for holy places," he continued.

Shalom said that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas needed to know that the whole world was looking to him, and anarchy in the Palestinian Authority was not a good sign for the future, reported Army Radio.

Anyone looking?

Over in England (via Hatshepsut):

Advisors appointed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair after the London bombings have proposed to cancel Holocaust Memorial Day, claiming it is offensive to the Muslim community, The Sunday Times reports.

Holocaust Memorial Day is offensive, offensive to the Muslim community. Got that? According to advisers appointed by Tony Blair after the London bombings. Perhaps you think they want to include the victims of Muslim terror among the memorialized? Don't be silly:

They want to replace it with a Genocide Day that would recognise the mass murder of Muslims in Palestine, Chechnya and Bosnia as well as people of other faiths.

Mass murder of Muslims in Palestine?

In fact we know, without asking, why we disinter our dead in Gaza. It goes without saying. If we left our graves in Gaza,  they'd disinter them themselves, mutilate the corpses, and parade them through the streets. Why would you expect anything else?

You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.


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Where I sit on Iraq

Amritas chronicles the evolution of his thinking since 9-11. It's an odd thing: I think I agree with his basic perception of the facts, but ultimately I disagree with him. In other words, I don't think that Iraq is going to be a shining beacon of democracy which will light up the world (or even just a plain-old imperfect democracy like Germany or Japan, or the US) - nevertheless I think that in the context of the Middle East, Iraq has already proven to be a beacon of light, and is therefore a great success.

There's an expression: "Where you stand depends on where you sit" - usually it refers to the fact that people often choose ideals to support the goals they imply, rather than the other way around. But it could also refer to the fact that how things look depends on what angle you are looking from. There's a common expression in Hebrew: D'varim shero'im mikan lo' ro'im misham (דברים שרואים מכאן לא רואים משם) - Things that you see from here, you don't see from there. (The expression flows better in Hebrew: the biggest problem with the translation is that English doesn't have a non-specific pronoun. For those of you who know French, translate using "on".) From where I sit, it is natural to compare Iraq today not with Germany or Japan or the US, but with the rest of the Arab world, and with what Iraq used to be. Unless Iraq descends into a Khomeini-like theocracy (which is possible, but I would bet against it) there is no way I could consider the US actions in Iraq to be a failure, neither in the past nor in the foreseeable future.

Of course, there is the legitimate question of whether it is worth the cost, both in lives and treasure. To me, it looks like it is definitely worth it. On the question of lives, it really hasn't been that expensive. Before you jump on me for devaluing life, or for putting a price tag on life, let me point out that the US has been fighting this war with a volunteer army, and it's not soldiers that are complaining about the cost of war - indeed, they have been among its biggest supporters - so grow up and let the soldiers be mature adults capable of making their own decisions.

On the question of money, again I think that the cost hasn't been that high. Although the numbers look gigantic in absolute terms, the US can well afford it, and the price of doing nothing could well be much, much higher.

(Now for those of you who would say that of course I support this war because I am a Zionist, and this war was fought for the interests of the Zionists, against the interests of the US: I want you to explain to yourself very carefully how the interests of Israel and the US are not ultimately aligned on this issue. If the terrorists win, it is true that Israel will feel it first and most severely, but ultimately the US and the whole free world will feel it too. Do you think that when the Islamists succeed in destroying Israel, that they settle down peacefully in their own countries and cultivate their gardens? Or do you simply think that Israel acting alone can hold down the front line, while the US and Europe party? - This may or may not be true, but it is not a strategy for winning, and usually when you don't play to win, you lose.)

If I do have a criticism of the war, I would say that it's been much too timid. Rather than regretting what was done so far, I would regret what has not been done: the US has let North Korea become a nuclear power, and seems to be on the verge of doing the same in Iran. These countries are the other two members of the Axis of Evil (remember them?) - the three countries correctly, in my opinion, singled out as the most dangerous to the free world (not necessarily the most evil in their domestic policies, though). What are we going to do about them? There's still time to deal with Iran before it gets the bomb, and the US presence in Iraq positions it well to do so. If we waste this opportunity, the War on Terror might well be a failure yet.

ADDENDUM: I have written in this vein before, examples: here, here, here.

UPDATE: I don't regularly read Auster, so perhaps I am missing something. But I don't quite understand his alternative to US actions in Iraq (in the larger sense - of course there have been many mistakes on specifics, but you can't fight a war without making mistakes). Leave Saddam in power? Destroy Saddam and get out, letting Iraq fall into dictatorship or theocracy, or letting Iran just invade and take over? The US presence in Iraq positions us well with respect to Iran, and don't forget that it enabled the US to exit Saudi Arabia. Of course, it's still possible to screw up, but it's hard for me to find major fault with what's happened so far, unless you want to say that the US has been too timid - something I would agree with, but the critics of the war usually argue just the opposite.

UPDATE: Amritas answers. As far as I can tell, we pretty much agree on where we have to go, to the extent that either of us have a specific opinion. It looks to me like our real point of disagreement is whether we are actually going there. His bottom line seems to be (correct me if I'm wrong): Withdraw the troops to an unpopulated area in the region, and encourage "Kemalism". It seems to me that this is exactly the (medium-range) goal of the current strategy. As quickly as possible, the US wants to withdraw its troops to bases in unpopulated areas, leaving the Iraqi army in charge. What the Wikipedia article on Kemalism (linked above) doesn't say is that the Turkish army is its primary support. Turkey has gone through several rounds of democratic governments, with the army taking over in between each time they failed - and it's still a major power in Turkey today, under the current "democracy". It seems to me that the US is quietly trying to build the Iraqi army into a similar institution, i.e. into a secular, pro-democracy power within Iraq, and my impression is that there certainly is a fairly large segment of the population of this sort to work with. Will it succeed? I have seen stories which point in both directions, and I'm not in a position to make a judgment. If not, the US army can always be called out of its bases - the tactic which Auster seems to support. In the meantime, I don't see what can be lost in trying to get Iraq to democratize as much as possible. And for political reasons, if not moral ones, I think we have to try.

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September 11, 2005

Four Years Ago

Here's the week the world changed - as recorded in real time by Instapundit... or did it? Excerpt:

RUSH IS RIGHT: Yeah, I listen to him sometimes, but I seldom say that. But today, as I write this, he's making me actually proud of him. We didn't become a great nation, he says, by hunkering down, by being fearful, by diminishing ourselves. And we won't stay one. He's decrying those who say we should give up a little freedom in exchange for a little illusory security. Bravo. Contrast this with Pulitzer-winning historian David McCullough, who was on TV last night advocating that very thing. I've said it before, but the right has somehow, and without it being really commented upon, become the chief bulwark of civil liberties in this country, while the left -- with exceptions like the ACLU & Nat Hentoff -- has become timid and authoritarian.


ARAFAT KNOWS WHAT TO WORRY ABOUT but he's clueless about how to handle his problem. Strongarm tactics may prevent Western news teams from covering pro-terrorist celebrations, but they only emphasize what he has to cover up. Arafat's basic problem -- which he shares with most Arab leaders -- is that he has to inflame his supporters against the West to keep power, but that he also depends on the West to keep power. The jig is up on that ploy, I'm afraid. But though Arafat and others may have been totally cynical in putting this strategy in place, enough people bought into it that now they're prisoners of their own propaganda. Despite looking like Ringo Starr's no-good brother, Arafat is smart and adaptable. But I don't see how he's going to wriggle out of this situation.

Four years later, it looks like they've figured it out. Maybe the world has moved a little bit, but not much.

Here's my 9-11 post from last year.

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September 08, 2005

New Orleans under water

Here's a map of Katrina flooding in New Orleans.

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September 07, 2005

Mr. Bush: Tear down this levee!

From Yahoo News:

It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's seven feet under sea level, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of federal assistance for hurricane-devastated New Orleans.

Democratic lawmakers from Louisiana were quick to disagree Thursday and Hastert sought to clarify the comment during the day.

"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," the Illinois Republican said in an interview about New Orleans Wednesday with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill.

Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon called the comments irresponsible and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu urged Hastert to focus on the humanitarian crisis at hand.

I agree with Hastert. I think that the government should buy up New Orleans (at pre-Katrina prices), at least the below-sea-level parts, excepting maybe the French Quarter, and let the Mississippi take its natural course:

The delta city of New Orleans owes its very existence to the engineering transformations of the Mississippi River. Surrounded by water and wetlands, the city is ringed with a levee system that has been under construction for almost three hundred years. Much of New Orleans lies below sea level. Without its twenty foot walls, the city would be devastated by periodic floods or a major hurricane.

Not very long ago, New Orleans almost became a backwater swamp when the Mississippi River showed signs of naturally changing its course. If the river was allowed to carve a new path to the Gulf of Mexico, away from New Orleans, the port would become a dry-dock. The Corps of Engineers was called in, this time to prevent the river from changing course. Their intentions were sincere, and no one questions that New Orleans had to be saved, but, as the citizens of Grafton learned, the Mississippi can drive a hard bargain.

This should appeal to both small-government supporters and environmentalists. Let's get the meme out there!

UPDATE: Note to those who object to paying for the real estate at pre-Katrina prices: I think it would be a lot less expensive than the alternative, especially if you project a few years into the future. I haven't done the calculations, so I would greatly appreciate hearing from someone who has. (If you have a blog, I will link, otherwise post a comment.)

UPDATE: Instapundit links. Thanks! Also, he lists some Katrina lessons. Lesson #1: "Don't build your city below sea level: If you do, sooner or later it will flood. Better levees, pumps, etc. will put that day off, but not prevent it."

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Trackback from Murdoc Online, This is the issue that matters the most:
Could New Orleans have been cleared in time? Donald Sensing has a long and informative post up about whether or not New Orleans could have been evacuated in time to avert the disaster: Let’s walk the dog a little. Here...

September 06, 2005

Them and Us

I have read a quite a few commentaries around the web, and in the MSM, comparing Katrina to 9/11. One thing I haven't seen commented on: On 9/11, the enemy was them, with Katrina, it is us. There is a world of difference between the two, even when the objective danger is comparable.

Living in Israel, I often have non-Israelis wondering that I live in such a "dangerous place". I usually reply that the chance of violent death in Israel is not higher than in the US, and is in fact much lower than, say, West Philadelphia, where I lived for four years without anyone wondering about the illogic of it. (West Philadelphia is not the most dangerous part of the city, by the way. That honor goes to North Philadelphia.) In fact, the experiential reality of living in Israel is that it's much safer than the US. The reason: In Israel, the danger comes from them, in the US it is from us. Violent crime in Israel is almost unknown, and when it does happen it's almost always a crime of passion. Israelis may think they are anxious about personal security, but few of them are in a position to personally compare their anxiety to that of Americans. I have lived significant amounts of time in both places, and I think I can say with confidence that in comparison to the US, Israelis feel safe.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly rational: Israel's personal security problem is much easier to live with than the US's. I don't worry about my kids being kidnapped. Women don't worry about walking around at night. When someone yells at you from a car, you don't fear for your safety. All this adds a significant intangible to the quality of life. But I also think that a big part of the difference is purely psychological. We humans are simply better equipped to deal with external threats than internal ones: a threat from one of us provokes far more anxiety than a threat from one of them. In fact, an external threat can have the paradoxical result of reducing rates of anxiety. I have lived through a few crises (examples: here, here) and can attest that the resulting cohesiveness of society can almost make it worth it (especially in the second case, when there really wasn't any significant danger).

New York on 9/11 was a clean fight against them. It is the kind of tale that makes heroes. Anyone doing their best and fighting hard will come off looking good. In contrast, New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina is a dirty fight against us. The ambiguousness of the fight makes no-one look good. Compare firemen and policemen: Firemen are heroes. Policemen... well it depends who you ask.


Addendum: I think that much of the attraction of groups like al-Qaa`idah (القاعدة) is the strong cohesiveness generated by making everyone else into them, the enemy.

(Crossed-posted on Gene Expression.)

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A city beyond all recognition

From Wes Meltzer:

Those of you who know me know that my family has very, very deep roots in south Louisiana -- my mother's mother's family has been there since the late 1840s, and my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mom, my brother and I were all born near the spot where my Gran and Papop lived until Sunday morning -- and I've spent many of the vacations of my lifetime in New Orleans. It's still a very raw and very painful wound.

The enormity of the destruction also looms large for my family, as with everyone else's, many of whom are suffering far more. My mom's parents' house, in the Garden District, is probably flooded only very slightly at worst, because that's one of the higher points in the city's below--sea level elevation. But everything else has been covered with water; my dad's parents live near the lake, just south of Robert E. Lee, and I shudder to think of how far under water their house must be. My aunt Doris and one of my cousins live in the eastern part of the city near where the canal broke through its levee, and their houses, too, must be flooded. Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes were devastated. As I say, all that has been spared was Uptown, so far, because of its elevation.

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September 05, 2005

The end of the oil shortage

At about $3.00 a gallon, biodiesel becomes cost effective. That's as high as it can go, so don't worry. From Hood River, Oregon:

Biodiesel is a biodegradable diesel fuel made from renewable materials such as vegetable oil, tallow and recycled cooking oil. The fumes from biodiesel engines are shown to be better for the environment than petrodiesel, and the exhaust smells like french fries, according to some.

Currently, the only two places to buy biodiesel in the valley are Clem’s Country Store in Odell, which sells a 20 percent blend (B20) for around $3.10 a gallon, and Valley Ag Service, Inc., in Parkdale, which sells a 99 percent blend (B99) in either 55- or 275-gallon containers for around $3 a gallon.

Here are some faqs.

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September 01, 2005

From the eye of the storm

There is at least one blogger left in New Orleans. Sample:

This is unbelievable! This was just a private little journal 3 days ago that I was using to share my hurricane experience with some friends -- like 30 people. Now it feels like the whole world is watching.


Security has become a major concern now, because the NOPD is ineffective and the looters terrorists are roaming the streets. Word is now that they're lighting buildings on fire, but I can't confirm that. Anyway, we have to run guard shifts and patrol and it limits our downtime.

It is a zoo out there though, make no mistake. It's the wild kingdom. It's Lord of the Flies. That doesn't mean there's murder on every street corner. But what it does mean is that the rule of law has collapsed, that there is no order, and that property rights cannot and are not being enforced. Anyone who is on the streets is in immediate danger of being robbed and killed. It's that bad.

All I can say is, I'm really glad to be safe here in Israel...

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