What does it mean?

May 22, 2004

George Orwell against nuance and subtlety

George Orwell makes the case against nuance and subtlety:

What I object to is the intellectual cowardice of people who are objectively and to some extent emotionally pro-Fascist, but who don’t care to say so and take refuge behind the formula ‘I am just as anti-fascist as anyone, but—’. The result of this is that so-called peace propaganda is just as dishonest and intellectually disgusting as war propaganda. Like war propaganda, it concentrates on putting forward a ‘case’, obscuring the opponent’s point of view and avoiding awkward questions. The line normally followed is ‘Those who fight against Fascism go Fascist themselves.’ In order to evade the quite obvious objections that can be raised to this, the following propaganda-tricks are used:
  1. The Fascizing processes occurring in Britain as a result of war are systematically exaggerated.
  2. The actual record of Fascism, especially its pre-war history, is ignored or pooh-poohed as ‘propaganda’. Discussion of what the world would actually be like if the Axis dominated it is evaded.
  3. Those who want to struggle against Fascism are accused of being wholehearted defenders of capitalist ‘democracy’. The fact that the rich everywhere tend to be pro-Fascist and the working class are nearly always anti-Fascist is hushed up.
  4. It is tacitly pretended that the war is only between Britain and Germany. Mention of Russia and China, and their fate if Fascism is permitted to win, is avoided.

The parallels to today’s situation should be obvious. I greatly value nuance and subtlety – for example, it is necessary in order to understand any system that involves feedback, such as economics, where secondary effects quickly become dominant. However, nuance and subtlety are often used for another purpose entirely – to lie.

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May 20, 2004

Noun or Verb?

The previous post has some good examples of Hebrew words where it is unclear whether they’re nouns, verbs or adjectives.

One example: Hakovesh et yisro

Which I translate as: One who conquers his inclinations

But kovesh seems to be a noun, as indicated by ha- which means “the”, so maybe a better translation is: The conqueror of his inclinations.

But “et” does not mean “of” – it’s a direct-object marker (a preposition for direct objects). What is the verb of this direct object? Kovesh!

It could be an adjective too. Example: Ha’ish hakovesh – The conquering man.

But what if it were: Ha’ish hakovesh et yisro ?

Which I would translate as: The man who conquers his inclinations.

But might be more literally translated as: The conquering-his-inclinations man.

I should stress that while it’s not clear to me how to parse this, the meaning is unambiguous.

(Also, yisro is actually “his inclination” but its clear to a Hebrew speaker that it refers to all of his inclinations.)

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Who is rich?

The EconLog has a post called, “Who is rich?” which quotes from David R. Henderson and Charley Hooper as follows:

Except for the few hundred thousand who are homeless, the Americans whom the U.S. government defines as poor live exceptionally rich lives. In most ways, their lives are better than those of kings and queens just 200 years ago. Consider the quality and quantity of our food, clothing, refrigerators, televisions, washing machines, stereo systems, and automobiles. King Louis XIV of France had a greenhouse so he could eat oranges. The poor in this country can eat an orange every day, regardless of season. King Edward III of England could summon the royal musicians to play music. The poor in this country have a wide variety of music at their command, 24 hours a day, played note-perfect every time. Edward III lived in a dark, smelly, cold castle. Even the worst houses in this country are more comfortable and have electric lights, too. Care to live without showers and flush toilets? The kings of England and France had to. Next time you see a Shakespeare play in which kings and princes cavort, remember that royalty in Shakespeare's day had rotten teeth, terrible breath, and body odor that would make you keel over.

I can’t help linking to this post because, “Who is rich?” is part of a famous passage from Pirqey Avot:

איזהו חכם – הלומד מכל אדם
איזהו גיבור – הכובש את יצרו
איזהו עשיר – השמח בחלקו
איזהו מכובד – המכבד את הברייות

Eyzehu hakham – halomed mikol adam
Eyzehu gibor – hakovesh et yisro
Eyzehu `ashir – hasameah b’helko
Eyzehu m’khubad – ham’khabed et habriyot

Who is wise – one who learns from every human being
Who is a hero – one who conquers his inclinations
Who is rich – one who is happy with his lot
Who is respectable – one who respects his fellow man

We have romantic images of people living on the American frontier in the mid-1800s. Though their lives were hard, we don’t think of them as living in abject poverty. In fact, they weren’t; I am in frequent contact with people who live in what would be considered abject poverty, but in fact live very rich lives – they just have less things. On the other hand, one of the reasons why being poor in the US is so horrible is that it makes it hard to get away from people who are impoverished also in spirit.

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Oil prices are falling

Russell Roberts of Cafe Hayek gives several reasons why oil prices are falling over time (in real terms), countering the seemingly common-sense argument that they should rise at the rate of interest (if prices rise less, then sell your oil and by bonds). He points out that the transaction costs for selling oil – extracting it from the ground – are much higher than the transaction costs of selling bonds.

I think, however, he misses the most important aspect of this – that the cost of extracting oil is relatively low until you reach capacity – and then it goes way up, because it requires adding capacity. The economics of the situation strongly encourages pumping oil at capacity, making production relatively impervious to interest rates.

UPDATE – Russell Roberts writes: I actually think the capacity part is only a small part of it. There are search costs of finding new sources, extra costs of pumping oil from difficult spots and so on.

Believe it or not, I was actually thinking of these sorts of things when I said "adding capacity".

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May 19, 2004

Noam Chomsky wins prize

Amritas's favorite LLLiberal wins German Prize. David Frum reports:

But Europe has unfurled the red carpet for anti-American crackpots. Take a look at this story from a very useful (English-language) blog on the German media: The German city of Oldenburg has awarded its annual prize for contemporary history and politics to … Noam Chomsky! Brace yourself for the irony: Oldenburg’s prize is named for Carl von Ossietzky, a gallant opponent of the Nazis who spent five years in a concentration camp before his untimely death in 1938. Ossietzky won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935.

Chomsky of course has a longstanding interest in the German concentration camps too: He contributed a preface to a book by Robert Faurisson, a French holocaust denier. I doubt that Carl von Ossietzky would be pleased by what has been done in his name. But then again, I doubt that today’s Europeans care very much about remembering what real fascism was – who succumbed to it – and which nation saved humanity from its rule. To remember what the United States has done in the past would provoke too many uncomfortable questions about what Europe is doing in the present.

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Definition of a Fanatic

A fanatic is one who is unwilling to consider evidence that his or her beliefs might be wrong.

It is NOT one who has strongly-held or unpopular beliefs.

I offer this definition as a public service, and out of respect to Scott.

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God and Evolution

Michael Williams goes to bat against evolution, pointing out that “belief in evolution is based on faith.” I certainly agree that God could have created the universe as it is now, complete with its fossil record. Why He would do that, just to confuse us, I don’t know, but it’s possible. What’s not possible is that evolution is not ongoing from this point on – unless you subscribe to the belief that God recreates the world at every moment – our false memories and all – which, I think, is position of Islam.

However, those who try to disprove evolution usually have a secret agenda. They falsely think that belief in evolution is incompatible with the belief that God created the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Did God part the Red Sea? Not according to the anti-evolutionists – the Red Sea was parted by a strong east wind!

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Democracy, the 2nd best form of decision making

Don Boudreaux talks about democracy. He says:

Democracy is poorly understood and vastly overrated. Americans knee-jerkily think of it as being synonymous with freedom, or at least as a damn reliable guarantor of freedom. It is neither.

I can agree with that. Most of the times that democracy has been tried it has resulted in… dictatorship, Nazi Germany being one outstanding example. Democracy requires a certain degree of maturity on the part of the public in order to work; even then, I agree with Winston Churchill that it is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

There is something, though, which is much, much better than democracy, and should be used for decision making whenever possible: free choice.

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The importance of Enthusiasm

I sold my company, Cleyal (the link is taken from the Internet Archive wayback machine), to Sapiens in 1998, after running it (with two partners) for seven years. In the years since then, I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate my sins – and also the things I did right.

One of the things I did right, which I wasn’t consciously aware of at the time, but which I intend to make official policy in my next start-up, was an emphasis on enthusiasm. In my opinion the most important things determining an employee’s productivity are:

1. Enthusiasm
2. Ability
3. Experience

In that order. Enthusiasm will carry you far, even if you are somewhat lacking in ability or experience. On the other hand, an employee without enthusiasm can be worse than useless, no matter ability and experience.

One of the side effects of recognizing the importance of enthusiasm is that it makes it very easy to fire people. I had to fire quite a few people over the course of seven years, and was able to remain friends with almost all of them. With one exception, all I needed to do was say, “it looks like you're not enjoying your job.” We would then seriously try to find a way to fix the problem. Usually it wouldn’t work out, and we’d both agree that it was in everyone’s best interest for the employee to work elsewhere.

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A lower rate of speed

There are only so many hours in the day. Between sleep, starting up a software business, and my wife and family, I can easily fill that time. I never really did have time for blogging – most of that time has come at the expense of sleep. But I find that without enough sleep my performance degrades rapidly. When fully refreshed I can sometimes hit a sweet spot, where I can accomplish remarkable things that at other times are beyond my capabilities.

I’m afraid that I’ll have to cut down on blogging – my health and the demands of my life and work require it. But I do intend to keep posting, just at a lower rate of speed. So stay tuned.

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May 17, 2004

Peaks and Valleys

I want to talk about the most important misunderstanding most people have: Most people think that happiness is a peak experience. A peak experience, as I mean it, is an experience that gives rise to strong emotions, whether positive or negative – the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, danger, falling in love, etc. People who are not happy (this, I think, includes most westerners) assume that happiness should be the ultimate peak experience. Many of them feel this way because they find their lives boring, which seems like the opposite of a peak experience. The impression is reinforced by the media, which has trouble depicting happiness, but no trouble depicting peak experiences. (Indeed, a characteristic of the evolution of the media, even during my own lifetime, is an increasing emphasis on increasingly extreme peak experiences.)

Happiness, however, is a valley experience. It is not a feeling of euphoria, but more like a feeling of peace. In fact, I might characterize it even more mundanely as a feeling of at-home-ness. To one who has never experienced it, it sounds like happiness is demotivating, but the opposite is true. It is a kind of flavor-enhancer to life. It enables you to feel peak experiences all the more. Unhappy people often seek out increasingly extreme peak experiences – because they can’t fully feel their peaks (this, I believe, is origin of bizarre sex practices, for instance), and don’t really enjoy their experiences.

The way to achieve happiness is to feel with certainty that your life has meaning. In our tribal past this was easy – your life was dedicated to the tribe, and this gave meaning to your life. In the modern world, you have to work harder. For some people, their family is enough – a kind of minimalist tribe. Others dedicate their lives to their country, or a good cause, or their job. All of these are worth something. Probably the more causes you have, the happier you will be – as long as they’re not cosmetic, i.e. they really are meaningful to you. However, in my opinion, while all well and good, these causes are but stepping-stones to the ultimate cause, and the source of meaning.

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Related Roots

Amritas talks about the hypercorrect (that is to say, incorrect) transcription of nakbah as naqbah. I was once informed by a woman whom I had momentarily found attractive that Munich was not pronounced the way I had pronounced it (myoonik) but “moonkhen”. I pointed out that I was using the usual English pronunciation, and that if she wanted to use the German she would have to also pronounce the umlaut over the U. More irritating, to me, are the multitudes that correct my pronunciation of Taoism. They want me to say “Daoism” when the Chinese pronunciation, as I understand it, starts with an unvoiced, unaspirated consonant – in other words, something between an English T (unvoiced, aspirated) and D (voiced, unaspirated). I’m sure; even then, that this would not be exactly as the Chinese pronounce it – as if a billion Chinese all pronounce it exactly the same way.

However, in this case, Amritas’s guess (“is this a derivative of naqaba 'he drilled'?”) is not necessarily incorrect. Semitic roots are morphological, not necessarily historical. Many Semitic roots seem to be derived by changing a letter of another root. The most famous such roots in Hebrew are p-r-X:

p-r-‘ – wild
p-r-d – separate
p-r-h – fruitful
p-r-z – exaggerate
p-r-h – flower
p-r-t – item
p-r-k – crumble
p-r-s – slice
p-r-` – plunder
p-r-s – break out
p-r-q – take apart
p-r-r – crumb
p-r-sh – separate, explain

All these roots have something to do with making many from one. We can also take one of these roots and start changing the middle letter:

p-r-` – plunder
p-q-` – split
p-g-` – wound
p-s-` – harm
p-sh-` – crime
p-t-` – surprise

Or change the first letter:

p-r-q – take apart
b-r-q – lightning
z-r-q – throw
h-r-q – insect
m-r-q – soup
s-r-q – comb
`-r-q – run away
sh-r-q – whistle

This phenomenon is the basis of the hypothesis that Hebrew once had two letter roots, three letter roots being a later development. I don’t take this seriously because it would give a theoretical maximum of only 484 roots – not nearly enough. Much more plausible, in my opinion, is that they come from changing a letter of an existing three-letter root. (Though sometimes this phenomenon can be shown to come through borrowing a cognate from another Semitic language.)

This particular case reminds me of Hebrew nashaq – bite, and nashakh – kiss. Since the root n-q-b appears in Hebrew, but not n-k-b, I would guess the latter is derived from the former.

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May 16, 2004

Evil for a good cause

Scott says:

It seems like you are saying that something like Nazism is inherently evil but that something like Communism, while evil, has some "good" points worthy of distinguishing it from Nazism. I tried to point out that Nazism had many, if not most, of the same "good" points…

If you want to try to come up with different examples for your points, feel free, but as they stand, the examples you provide are distinctions without a difference.

I will try to come at this from a different angle, and perhaps my original examples will become clear. Some time ago I read Fear No Evil, by Nathan Sharansky. A great book, one of the most inspiring that I’ve read in my life. It describes how Sharansky was imprisoned by the USSR on false charges, when his real crime was nothing more than a desire to emigrate. Though he was tortured by the Soviets, and the evil of the system is more than clear, I was struck by the how successful Sharansky was at manipulating it, and by the fact that he did survive until his eventual release. He was able to do this because the system was fundamentally hypocritical – at the same time that it was practicing evil, it was preaching good. In an unhypocritically evil system, like Nazi Germany, he would have just been killed – without the need to make excuses.

Eventually the Soviet system imploded under the weight of its own hypocrisy – with a little help from Ronald Reagan and the United States – in a way it was a victory of the Soviet Union too.

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Reader Adam introduced me to Logjam – er, Lojban, an artificially constructed language, like Esperanto. However, according to the Logical Language Group, its purpose is not to be an international language:

Lojban was not designed primarily to be an international language, however, but rather as a linguistic tool for studying and understanding language. Its linguistic and computer applications make Lojban unique among proposed international languages: Lojban can be successful without immediately being accepted and adopted everywhere, and Lojban can be useful and interesting even to those skeptical of or hostile towards the international language movement.

Its claim to not distinguish between nouns, verbs, and adjectives seems to be belied by this question and answer:

What is the standard word order of Lojban?
Lojban is only secondarily a 'word order' language at all. Primarily, it is a particle language. Using a standard word order allows many of the particles to be 'elided' (dropped) in common cases. However, even the standard unmarked word order is by no means fixed; the principal requirement is that at least one argument precede the predicate, but it is perfectly all right for all of the arguments to do so, leading to an SOV word order rather than the currently canonical SVO (subject–verb–object): the two orders are equally unmarked syntactically. VSO order is expressible using only one extra particle. In two-argument predicates, OSV, OVS, and VOS are also possible with only one particle, and various even more scrambled orders (when more than two-place predicates are involved) can also be achieved.
True, Lojban is “built up from a list of around 1350 root words (gismu)” which can be nouns, verbs or adjectives – but Indo-European and Semitic roots also work this way. However, I do give the language’s inventors credit for creating a language that is totally un-Indo-European in structure – and perhaps un-human as well. Take a look at this sentence:

le prenu cu klama le zdani le briju le zarci le karce

The person goes to the house from the office via the market using the car.

The definition of the brivla [“verb” - DB] used above, klama, shows this relationship. There are five places labelled x1 through x5. The brivla itself describes how the five places are related, but does not include values for those places. In this example, those places are filled in with five specific sumti [“noun” – DB] values:

· x1 contains le prenu (the person)

· x2 contains le zdani (the house)

· x3 contains le briju (the office)

· x4 contains le zarci (the market)

· x5 contains le karce (the car)

I don’t think that any natural language requires its speakers to count to more than 2, certainly not to 5! True, these places may be optionally marked by prepositions: fa, fe, fi, fo, fu – but this syntax seems inspired by mathematical or computer notation in which counting argument places is the norm, for example:

f (x1, x2, x3, x4, x5)

is a function with five arguments. In most programming languages this would look something like:

cu-klama (le-prenu, le-zdani, le-briju, le-zarci, le-karce)

If, on the other hand, the prepositions were mandatory, it would look like – a URL!


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