What does it mean?

October 30, 2005

Because that's where the power is

When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton is said to have replied: "Because that's where the money is." I can't believe how little attention is paid to the Americanization of the Iraqi army because, at least in the Islamic middle east, that's where the power is. With a (hoped-for) monopoly on force, the Iraqi army will inevitably be the most important political force in Iraq. What's more, the army is the one place where it's considered legitimate, even in a democracy, for the government to enforce cultural norms. In this case, secularism, pluralism, and democracy. Here's one place where they seem to get it (via Instapundit):

The Sunni Arabs knew that the management and leadership skills necessary to run an army or police force were not easily acquired. It took years of training and experience. There was no way the Kurds and Shia Arabs could quickly replace those Sunni Arab officers and NCOs. Thus Sunni Arab terrorists would drive out the foreign troops, especially the deadly Americans, and, then the Sunni Arabs would take over again. But then something very, very bad (for the Sunni Arab takeover plan) happened. Battalions and brigades of Iraqi troops began to show up, commanded by Kurds, Shia Arabs, and some turncoat Sunni Arabs, that could do the job. Currently there are 207,000 Iraqi soldiers and police that are trained and equipped for operations. There are sufficient leadership to deploy 120 army and police battalions for combat operations. About three dozen of these battalions are well enough led to undertake security operations without American supervision.

The US's destruction and rebuilding of the Iraqi army was a strategic objective, not a tactical mistake. No effort to remake Iraq could succeed, even by half, without it. De-Baathification is the Iraqi version of Kemalism: Atatürk did the same thing in Turkey, and built an institution which is still a cultural and political force today. Not quite democracy, but a lot better than the alternative. And something from which, in time, democracy might evolve.

UPDATE: For an example of Turkish democracy, see this. Mind your Qs and Ws!

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October 27, 2005

Let's get aquatinted

This made me laugh:

Some spellchecker artifacts only show up when a particular typo is made. In another case noted on alt.usage.english, the misspelling of acquainted as aquainted would cause some spellcheckers to suggest aquatinted instead. (That word, by the way, refers to etchings made using aquatint, a process that makes a print resemble a water color.) Thankfully, it appears that MS Word has fixed this one, as aquatinted now comes in second place to acquainted in the list of suggestions. But the damage has been done, as evidenced by thousands of Googlehits.

No doubt that all of us who have done some writing in the last 10 years have been bitten by this kind of bug (at least I have).

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Chromosomes and Evolution

I have just learned something new. Or, rather, become newly aware of the implications of some things that have been rattling around in my mind for a while. Greg Cochran linked (indirectly) to this quote:

The loci in question are so tightly linked that rare recombinants practically never arise - this explains why the different multi-locus genotypes appear, when crossed, to segregate like single locus genotypes. A set of genes so tightly linked that they behave like a single locus has been termed a supergene.

This was a eureka moment for me. I have sometimes wondered about the evolutionary implications of chromosomes. I'm sure that there's a molecular reason for them - certainly, it would be hard to imagine a diploid genetic architecture, necessary for sexual reproduction, without them! But having said that, it would seem that chromosomes only get in the way of sexual reproduction: If sexual reproduction is about facilitating genetic recombination, then more would certainly be better than less, and we know that many other species have many more than our 23 pairs: horses have 32, dogs have 49, ferns have 630! So why haven't we evolved the maximum possible number of chromosomes?;It's certainly possible to have a lot more chromosomes than we have.

Clearly, it seems to me, the answer is that sexual reproduction is not always a good thing. Rescrambling our genes every generation has the effect of breaking up favorable combinations of genes, so it must be that a small number of chromosomes is an adaptive response to this. Genes on the same chromosome get rescrambled not every generation, but once out of many generations, with genes closer together getting rescrambled less often than genes farther apart. The infrequency of the rescrambling makes time for selection to weed out unfavorable linkages as they arise. 

Some predictions:

1. Linkage disequilibrium is not necessarily a sign of recent positive selection - it could also be a sign of coadapted gene complexes.

2. Coadapted gene complexes that involve genes on different chromosomes would have to be much more advantageous than those involving genes on the same chromosome, in order to be maintained.

3. The advantage necessary to maintain coadapted gene complexes varies according to the physical distance on the chromosome of the genes involved. (I know it's a bit more complicated than that, but roughly.)

4. A reduction in the number of chromosomes could be adaptive if it locks-in a favorable gene complex.

5. A coadapted gene complex could also explain this, as these genes don't recombine.

6. This could be part of the answer why we have sex so often (i.e. more often than models would predict)!

PS: This is another example of the importance of tradition.

(Cross-posted at Gene Expression.)

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October 24, 2005

Happy Happiness of Tora (Simhat Tora Sameah)

שמחת תורה שמח!

Simhat Tora Sameah!

Happy Simhat Tora!

Simhat Tora means "Happiness of Tora". Here's what I wrote last year.

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October 23, 2005

Meme Seven

Zman Biur gets tagged with Meme Seven. But researching things as is his habit, he finds it considerably changed from its original form. Being a traditional Jew, this leads to some soul-searching:

So, as one faithful to the traditions, which version should I do? Should I transmit the meme as I received it, remaining faithful to my place in the chain of tradition? Or should I aim to ascertain the original, authentic form of the meme and restore it to its rightful glory, correcting any distortions which have taken hold in the meantime?

On the one hand, tradition only bears authority to the extent that it is preserved as it has been transmitted. Within the framework of tradition, I can carry on the practices of my father or my teachers. But the moment I adopt someone else's practices, someone with whom I have no direct authoritative relationship, I am not being traditional. I am being arbitrary and autonomous.

If I follow Hassidic customs because my father is a Hassid, or because my rebbe is a Hassid, I am continuing the tradition. But if I do so because they sound nice to me, or I find them inspiring or meaningful, I am acting of my own accord and have severed any link I might have to the chain of tradition.

On the other hand, where it is possible to determine that the tradition has gone awry, that authentic practices have been lost or distorted, and foreign ones substituted, is it not my duty to restore authenticity to the tradition, discarding any errors in transmission which may have crept in - no matter for how long they have taken hold? I am not being arbitrary and autonomous - I am restoring truth to the tradition!

What does Mr. Biur decide to do? Follow the link to find out.

He also tags me. Sorry to disappoint you, Zman, but this is one minhag (מנהג) - tradition that I don't want to take on at this time. I'm not at that level.

One more thing: You forgot to mention hatarat n'darim (התרת נדרים) - being released from vows.

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The Sanctification of Tradition

A while ago, Kantor left this comment:

When Christians say that Jesus was the son of a virgin, or Jews hold that God opened the Red Sea for Moses, they are making factual statemets.

I would be very interested in understanding why Jews belive in The Red Sea miracle, but they don´t belive in Maria´s virginitiy, or Mohammed´s trip to the Moon. These things are a matter of fact, so a field for logic and reason.

Now, in a footnote to a very long and worthwhile post, Razib says:

Christian believers were surveyed as to their axioms. They were then given some forged documents from the "Dead Sea Scrolls" whose veracity the researchers vouched for. The documents contain evidence that the core truth claims of these Christians were highly unlikely, and almost certainly distortions of the "truth." After this the respondents were asked if they believed in the veracity and accuracy of the documents, and many responded yes. But, these same individuals insisted that their axioms still held, and, averred that their faith was stronger. The key point is that the contradictions were naked before them, but they refused to acknowledge it. The implication is that religious propositions are cognitively insulated from standard means of disconfirmation. One could posit that the results were in part due to the inability to reason logically because of low intelligence, but if this is modal in the population, same difference.

So, here's a thought experiment. (Though Kantor is not American, I hope that he will understand the reverence with which Americans hold their constitution.) What if we were to discover that the Constitution that was signed and ratified by the 13 original United States of America had been stolen by an evil genius and replaced by one quite different - and that is the one which has come down to us today? Would you say that Americans were legally bound to that other Constitution, and that they should revert to it? Probably you would say that the one in use now has been in force for over 200 years, has been amended from time to time to reflect the will of the people, and that that process gives it legitimacy to continue in force. In other words, a 200+ year tradition has sanctified the US Constitution. That is exactly the view that Judaism takes toward halakha.

Now, halakha doesn't concern itself with the parting of the Red Sea, and if you look at the Rabbinic tradition you will find all kinds of bizzare and conflicting ways of understanding the factual assertions of the Bible. As Razib says about science, it's not about loyalty to a specific set of facts, but to a process, and to a social system.

Other thoughts on this matter: here, here, here.

Also see here. There's a lot more to the Talmud than halakha, but only halakha is legally binding. The rest embroiders the rich tapestry of Judaism as a social phenomenon.

רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן חִסְמָא אוֹמֵר
קִנִּין וּפִתְחֵי נִדָּה הֵן גּוּפֵי הֲלָכוֹת
תְּקוּפוֹת וְגִמַּטְרְיָאוֹת פַּרְפְּרָאוֹת לַחָכְמָה

Rabi eli`ezer ben hisma omer
Qinin upithey nida hen gufey halakhot
T'qufot v'gimatra'ot parpra'ot l'hokhma

Rabbi Eliezer son of Hisma says
The laws of bird offerings and menstruation are essentials of halakha
Astronomy and numerology are condiments to wisdom

Pirqey Avot 3:18

In other words, a lot of boring little things are essential parts of halakha, while a lot of big exciting things are not. This is one of the recurring objections to Judaism: that concerns itself with all sorts of little details while leaving the big questions unanswered. I think that it's one of Judaism's strengths.

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October 19, 2005

Good for nothing

I just noticed that Rishon Rishon is the #1 Google search answer for ә. (Odd, since I think that's the only post where I use the character.) It's a schwa, which comes from the Hebrew word sh'va' (in my usual orthography). In Hebrew, sh'va' (שְׁוָא) means something like "nothing", and is an epenthetic vowel, but in linguistics it is this vowel, which is the most common vowel in English - it is the "e" in "the" and heard at the beginning and end of "America".

UPDATE: I know why. I must have inadvertently chosen the Cyrillic schwa for that post instead of the IPA schwa. It's only used in "Kazakh, Bashkir, Tatar and other languages of the ex-USSR" - not too common on the web, evidently.

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October 17, 2005

V'samahta b'hagekha - And you will be happy in your holidays

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ
אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְהַלֵּוִי
וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ

V'samhata b'hagekha
Ata uvinkha uvitekha v`avd'kha v'amatekha v'halevi
V'hager v'hayatom v'ha'almana asher bish`areykha

And you will be happy in your holidays
You and your son and your daughter and your (male) servant and your (female) servant and the priest
And the foreigner and the orphan and the widow that are within your gates

Deuteronomy 16:14

This is the way Sukot (סוכות) is referred to in the Bible. It is considered meritorious to be happy in general, and in particular on sabbaths and holidays, but most of all, Sukot is considered to be a time of happiness. The harvest is in, and we have just spent ten days repenting, from Rosh Hashana (ראש השנה) to Yom Kipur (יום כיפור). Now, cleansed, we are ready to celebrate the new year.

Here is what I wrote last year. Also, see here and here. I've been busy lately, but with good things. I hope to tell you about it soon.

Hag Sameah! (חג שמח) - Happy Holiday!

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October 12, 2005

Som Qal - Have an easy fast

For those of you who are fasting:

צום קל

Som Qal

[Have an] easy fast!

I don't know when I'll have time to post again. Pretty soon, I hope! In the meantime, here's my post from last Yom Kipur.

PS: Kipur (כיפור) means "atonement", so Yom Kipur means "Day of Atonement". It's from the same root (k-p-r) as kofer (כופר) which means "apostate". Can you think of a similar word from Arabic with the same meaning? Answer here. Don't you love it when isolated bits of knowledge get tied together systematically?

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October 03, 2005

Shana Tova - Happy New Year

שנה טובה!
תכתבו ותחתמו
לחיים טובים ולשלום

Shana Tova!
Tikatvu v'tehatmu
L'hayim tovim ulshalom

Happy New Year! [lit: Good Year!]
May you be written and sealed [in the book of life]
For a good life and for peace

Unfortunately, I don't have time to write anything this year. But here's what I wrote last year.

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