What does it mean?

June 17, 2004

Hebrew vowels

Modern Hebrew doesn’t distinguish vowel length; therefore I usually don’t indicate it in my transcriptions. But pre-modern Hebrew did, and it is part of the Hebrew writing system. The table below illustrates the Hebrew vowels. There are six vowel sounds: i, e, a, o, u, and schwa; and three vowel lengths: long, short, and ultra-short. I have also taken care (this time) to indicate vowel length in the transcriptions of the vowel names.

Hebrew vowels are not independent: they are always associated with a consonant. In the following table, I have used the consonant aleph for this purpose.

  long short ultra short
 value name graph name graph name graph
i   אִי hiiriiq אִ    
e seeyre אֵ segowl אֶ hataf segowl אֱ
a qaamas אָ pataah אַ hataf pataah אֲ
o howlaam (haaseer) אוֹ   אֹ qaamas qaataan אָ hataf qaamas אֳ
u shuuruuq אוּ qubuus אֻ    
ә         shәvaa' naa` אְ


Except as indicated below, I have used double letters to transcribe long vowels, single letters to transcribe short vowels, and superscripts to transcribe ultra-short vowels.

The letters ', h, h, ` (ע, ח, ה, א) cannot take a shәvaa' naa`. In places where a shәvaa' naa` would be expected, they take one of the hataf vowels.

There is also a “vowel” shәvaa' naah which looks exactly like a shәvaa' naa`, but indicates no vowel. There is no ambiguity, because shәvaa' naa` is only used to eliminate consonantal clusters. (In modern Hebrew, many consonant clusters are permitted. In my usual transcription, I use a single quote ['] to indicate a shәvaa' naa`, only in places where it is still pronounced.)

The qaamas which indicates a long “a” looks exactly like the qaamas qaataan which indicates a short “o”. There is no ambiguity because short “o” only occurs in closed unaccented syllables, while long “a” only occurs in open or accented syllables.

The long “i” is indicated by a hiiriiq followed by a yud.

There are two ways to indicate a long “o” – a howlaam with a vav, or just a howlaam. The latter is called howlaam haaseer. In my transcriptions I have used “ow” to transcribe the former, and “oo” to transcribe the latter. It could be that “ow” is derived from a former “aw”.

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June 16, 2004

Amritas and Almavet and Ben Nesah

Amritas posts about his name. What would Amritas be in Hebrew? That’s easy: Almavet. It comes from “al” meaning not, and “mavet” meaning death, and it means immortal. It even looks and sounds a lot like Amritas – a twofer! The only problem is I don’t like it.

The use of “al-” as a prefix meaning “un-” is very new and foreign to the spirit of the language. There is a Hebrew equivalent to compound words, which is very similar to English. For example, “workplace” in Hebrew is “m’qom `avoda” from the words “maqom” – “place” and “`avoda” – work. Like English, it is accented as one word, not two, which is why the “a” in “maqom” becomes a shva “’”. Unlike English, though, the words are written with a space between them, and the accent is on the last word, not the first. However, since the word order is reversed, both languages end up accenting the same word, “work” in English and “`avoda” in Hebrew!

But compounding in Hebrew is only for combining nouns, and even then they are not bound as tightly as they are in English. For example, “the workplace” in Hebrew is “m’qom ha`avoda” the word “the” (ha-) is inserted in the middle of the compound! That’s why this construct is often translated with the word “of”, i.e. “place of work”. I use either one – whichever feels best to me. In pre-modern Hebrew there were no affixes like “un-”, “bi-”, “inter-”, etc., as there are now. “Immortal” in Hebrew would have to be translated whole, not as “im-” + “mortal”.

Well, it turns out that there are lots of ways to do this in Hebrew. As one of God’s attributes, it is a continual (dare I say immortal?) theme in Jewish prayers.

Some expressions:

l`olam va`ed – for ever and ever
`adey `ad – for ever and ever (lit. ever of ever)
hayey `olam – eternal life (lit. life of eternity)
hayey nesah – eternal life (lit. life of eternity)
hay `olamim – eternal life (lit. life of eternities)
eyn sof – infinity
eyn qes – endless

The word “`ad” is an adverb, and “`olam” has an additional meaning of “universe” when standing alone, “eyn sof” and “eyn qes” have meanings which are not quite right. That leaves “nesah”. To this I would add the word “ben” which means “son” but is also used to express something that has the qualities of something else.

Ben Nesah – Son of Eternity – Eternal One – Amritas

That’s my choice.

UPDATE: This post should answer a certain question about my sidebar.

UPDATE: Amritas responds to this post. He also includes additional information about Hebrew, along with the name written in Hebrew letters. I didn’t intentionally try to make the name sound “cool” but I do think it does. Almavet, on the other hand sounds to me like calling water “hydrogen hydroxide” – accurate, but unpoetic.

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Who will watch the watchers

Steven Den Beste responds to a reader from Singapore, asking about the price of freedom. Daryl writes:

Compare Singapore to the USA, does Singapore really seem so restrictive? Don't you feel that sometimes liberty is abused to the fullest extent in America? Don't you agree that certain restrictions are necessary, restrictions that aren't in place in the USA?

As part of his response, Steven says:

Capitalism is like that. It gives you the opportunity to be wealthy, but you can also be poor, and you actually have to compete and work hard and perform. There's plenty of opportunity, but there are no guarantees. If you're not used to doing that kind of thing, it's a shock. Some people don't really successfully make that transition.

I understand why some people and some groups fear it. I understand them, but I don't sympathize with them or excuse them for it. There's a price for everything; there's no free lunch in life. If they want the benefits, they have to pay the price.

Singapore is actually the exception that proves the rule. (That expression dates from a time when “prove” meant something like “test”.) Singapore is, I think, the only place in the world where people get anything in exchange for their loss of liberty. In all other cases that I can think of, countries that restrict liberty also have more poverty and fewer guarantees.

The problem is: Who will watch the watchers (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – Satires of Juvenal). Why would the people restricting your liberty – the ones making the rules – do so for your benefit? Besides the fact that making such rules work in practice is really difficult even if they tried, they have little incentive to do so in the first place. They make the rules for their own benefit!

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June 15, 2004

Iraq War Reason

I think that the case for war in Iraq has been poorly made. This is a rare example where I have something to add to a Nelson Ascher post (via Amritas). Nelson says:

That’s in a way the coalition’s strategy too. There were many reasons to invade Iraq, from the WMDs that are being slowly found to Saddam’s links to Al Qaeda, links about which what we know is already enough to be considered a casus belli. Obviously, with time we’ll know more about both things. But the geo-strategic reasons were even more important: after all Iraq has borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, none of which could have been invaded as easily, quickly and legitimately. Besides, Iraq was a good place from were to scare other governments in the region, that is, the pour encourager les autres factor.

The real reason that the US went to war in Iraq is all of the above (plus of course, the humanitarian reasons). But most of all it’s because the American public woke up to the fact that terrorism is a real and immediate danger. Not a nuisance, and not just a problem for foreign countries. And potentially, not just from Al Qaeda. Other openly hostile entities threaten the US with terrorism, and among them were Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

The connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda is not direct. The connection is that they were both hostile to the US and both open advocates of terrorism.

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Trackback from trying to grok, PACING:
I've received input from several people lately about the War in Iraq vs. the War on Terror. The common sentiment was that the War on Terror is good and necessary but that Iraq didn't figure into it. They said that...

June 14, 2004

The Original Internet

The Rabbis in the Talmud talk about God one moment, sex the next and commerce the third. Rather than seeming like a broken state of affairs it seems – especially after Freud and Marx and Darwin – astonishingly human, and therefore astonishingly whole.

None of this is to suggest that one reality be substituted for another – on the contrary, it is to suggest that they can live side by side. It’s the side-by-side culture of the Talmud I like so much. “On the one hand” and “on the other hand” is frustrating for people seeking absolute faith, but for me it gives religion an ambidextrous quality that suits my temperament.

The Talmud (literally: Learning) is the encyclopedic record of the Jewish oral tradition, written down over a period of a few hundred years starting almost two millennia ago. Follow the link, and you will see a typical page. Notice the non-linear layout. The Talmud has an organic structure, like the Internet. One thing leads to another in an endless series of links. But it is also highly organized, by a set of rules compiled by Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid in his Introduction to the Talmud.

The quote above is from The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds, a highly moving account, which will also give you a good idea of the nature of the Talmud, without necessitating actually learning it.

Both the Mishnah and the Gemarah [parts of the Talmud – DB] evolved orally over so many hundreds of years that, even in a few lines of text, Rabbis who lived generations apart participate and give the appearance, both within those discrete passages as well as by juxtaposition on the page, of speaking directly to each other. The text includes not only legal disputes but fabulous stories, snippets of history and anthropology and biblical interpretations. Running in a slender strip down the inside of the page is the commentary of Rashi, the medieval exegete, commenting on both the Mishnah and the Gemarah, and the biblical passages (also indexed elsewhere on the page) that inspired the original conversation. Rising up on the other side of the Mishnah and the Gemarah are the tosefists, Rashi’s descendants and disciples, who comment on Rashi’s work, as well as on everything Rashi commented on himself. The page is also cross-referenced to other passages of the Talmud, to various medieval codes of Jewish law (that of Maimonides, for example), and to the Shulkhan Arukh, the great sixteenth-century codification of Jewish law by Joseph Caro.
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Rules that set you free

Two Jews, three opinions. This is one of the many Jewish stereotypes you hear in the US. In fact, a glance at a Jewish social function (if the participants haven’t been too Americanized, which is getting harder to find these days): a wedding, a synagogue service, etc. and you will see what looks like chaos. JST: Jewish Standard Time, means you never know when anything will start, or how long it will take. But there’s another stereotype that I hear a lot: Jews, they really know how to organize themselves! Can both stereotypes have some truth to them? If so, what does it mean?

Observant Jews are required to pray three times a day: morning, afternoon, and evening. When ten or more Jews are together, they are required to conduct their prayers communally. It is a remarkable thing to see the formation of a minyan (prayer group) among people who don’t know each other – in airports, hotels, etc. It’s a seemingly spontaneous crystallization of a previously amorphic structure – which breaks up as soon as the prayers are finished. I have seen teenagers do the same thing, demonstrating an impressive level of maturity for their age. How does it happen? It happens because there are specific rules which everyone knows, which determine the process. A shaliah sibur (public emissary) needs to be selected to lead the prayers. Usually there’s some jostling as people volunteer each other, but I’ve never seen people fight about it. Once that happens, his nusakh (version) of the prayers determines the version for the minyan as a whole. The rules are somewhat more detailed (for example, if a mourner is present, he is selected to be the shaliah sibur), but the specifics aren’t important for this discussion. My point is that since the rules are standardized, and everybody knows them, a randomly formed group becomes self-organizing.

In fact, this is the nature of Judaism in all aspects. As I have said before, Judaism is not a faith-based religion. What is it then? It’s a rule-based religion. An observant Jew follows 613 commandments (misvot). A very wide range of theological opinions is tolerated within Judaism – as long as you observe the commandments. (There are, however a few articles of faith, the most important being belief in one God. Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith represents a consensus, but not universal, view.)

Moreover, Judaism is one of the last traditional religions. By this I mean a couple of related things. First, it is traditional in the sense that we mean when we speak of traditional cultures – at one time, all of the world’s cultures were traditional. Traditional cultures view wisdom as being contained primarily in the tribe’s traditions, and maintain explicit institutions for preserving them. Second, Judaism is traditional in the sense that its roots go back to prehistoric times: It has no one founder who imparted a unified (synthetic) set of ideas through which to view the world. Instead, its principles are united in an organic sense – they work together to create a lifestyle that satisfies the individual and preserves the community. (Though, since they are based on something real – human nature, they are subject to logical analysis. The logic is just a bit more complex than that of synthetic religions.)

Taken together, these three characteristics lead to an organic worldview. Though Israelis in general, and Israelis in high-tech in specific, are for the most part not religiously observant, the historic Jewish worldview persists. Israelis tend to assume that random groups will organize themselves – not break up and scatter. Israeli culture is egalitarian in the extreme – Israelis tend to have little respect for authority, not because they are anti-authority, but more because they don’t tend to pay much attention to it. (In the high-tech world you hear complaints about making presentations to Israelis – they’re always debating and asking questions. Personally, I always found it much harder to present to Japanese, who give no feedback at all. But then, I’m used to Israelis.) In spite of this, Israelis are easy to manage, not by giving orders but by making rules and setting goals (goals are actually a kind of rule: achieve this goal). Goals define the task, while rules make sure that the parts system, and the people building it, can work together. This is the way to mange for innovation, for high-tech. It’s necessary, because you never know, when you start out, exactly what you need to do. You have to rely on the initiative and creativity of your employees, but they also have to be able to work together.

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June 13, 2004

Cannibals in pursuit of happiness

Steven Den Beste talks about the morality of cannibalism when the “victim” wants to be eaten:

So in Adams' universe, someone solved that problem [of eating meat – DB] by using genetic engineering to create a race of creatures who wanted to be eaten. However, that required them to be sufficiently intelligent to be able to think about such abstract issues, and it ended up that they were actually quite intelligent, and were able to engage in conversation.

So when Dent, Trillian, Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox finally got a table in the Restaurant at the end of the Universe, and while they were looking at the menu, the waiter wheeled out a cart with one of those creatures sitting on it in the middle of a big tray. He tried to convince Arthur Dent to order a steak to be made from him, which would mean that once Dent put in that order he would be slaughtered, and a part of his body would be broiled and served to Arthur a few minutes later.

In fact, it wouldn't have been necessary to slaughter him because he would willingly kill himself so that his body could be eaten.

Both Arthur Dent and Trillian were horrified, and Arthur Dent that he didn't want to eat something that said it wanted him to eat it. Zaphod asked Dent if it would somehow be better if the creature did not want to be eaten.

This is not just a theoretical question. It really happened not too long ago in Germany. A person killed and ate another person who wanted to be eaten. Evidently, in Germany, it is not considered murder.

I am as revolted by this idea as Steven (he comes down squarely against it), as I think most people would be. My question, though, for Steven: How does his position increase the amount of happiness in the world?

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Memes and truth

Amritas talks about memetic evolution (a meme is the genetic unit of knowledge):

The birth of language was the beginning of a memetic reproductive explosion that continues to this day in increasingly technologically advanced forms (e.g., blogging)… Those who buy into the worst antilife variants die and their memes die with them (e.g., Heaven's Gate). Ideas cannot escape natural selection. This is not to say that all surviving ideas are prolife. Many are neither prolife nor antilife.

But if a meme is prolife does that mean it’s true?

Can a meme be prolife and be false?

If X and Y are two possible explanations for something: X is more prolife than Y, but Occam’s razor favors Y over X, which do you decide is true?

Here are my answers:

Anything that is prolife is true in some way – if you don’t know in what way it’s true, than you just don’t know enough about the truth.

I would favor a prolife idea over one with a higher Occam’s razor score any time. That’s why I believe in God.

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Pursuit of happiness

I think that I have found Steven Den Beste’s rebuttal, it’s in his post about marriage:

My axiom is "Happiness is inherently valuable." Happiness doesn't need to serve some other goal; it's worthwhile in and of itself. It doesn't matter whether it is ephemeral; whether it has any long term effect; whether it leads me to some sort of eternal reward (which I don't think will happen). Happiness is good in its own right.

So, the general ethical goal I try to accomplish is to increase the amount of happiness and decrease the amount of unhappiness in the universe. To me, that's a worthy goal irrespective of whether it has any other result. Everything I believe in ethics derives from this.

I think this is a worthy axiom to which to dedicate your life. Steven derives from it a fundamental belief in liberty, in self-defense, and many other things. Let me point out though, the sense of purpose that it gives to his life – to the extent that he would be willing to sacrifice his own happiness, maybe even his own life, toward achieving it. Steven identifies with the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness is (part of) his identity. Since it is immortal, therefore, he, too, is immortal.

Does he really believe that in the end none of it matters? I think that it’s likely that at times he does. (Don’t we all?) I just wonder why he prefers it that way.

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