What does it mean?

June 25, 2004

Dyslexia and fonts

Here’s another interesting article about dyslexia and fonts. I’m surprised at how difficult it is to find concrete information about dyslexia on the web. It seems that some scripts and fonts are easier than others for dyslexics – such a problem is easily addressed with software, and easily applied to online sources.

These are the potential problems that I’ve gathered so far:

1. Similar shaped letters, especially those that differ in orientation e.g. p, q, b, d

2. Non-phonetic spelling

3. Long words (short-term memory problem)

4. Non-phonemic graphs

5. Writing Direction (left-right, right-left)

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Dyslexia and scripts

I have just discovered a fascinating (short) article on dyslexia. The gist of it is that dyslexia can be caused by any of several difficulties, and that different writing systems make use of different areas of the brain. The result is that a person can be dyslexic in one language but not the other – and that no one writing system is best for all dyslexics.

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Chaos and the herd instinct

A few posts down, I wrote about the herd instinct – how it’s a rational response to limited knowledge. I would like to write a little now about how that intersects with chaos.

What I mean here is chaos in the mathematical sense – which is different from randomness. Randomness means that things aren’t predictable. Chaos (in the mathematical sense) is predictable on the micro scale – each subsequent event can be predicted from previous events. But unpredictable on the macro scale – you can’t predict the future by making generalizations about the past. Chaos occurs when “small” events have “big” results.

Life is chaotic. I met my wife at a lecture – if I hadn’t gone, and I almost didn’t go, I might never have met her, and my whole life would be different.

The blogosphere is also chaotic. There are a lot of great blogs out there, but I don’t know about their existence. There are a lot of great blogs that I know about, but I don’t have time to visit them. As you can see, the blogs I read most are USS Clueless and Amaravati: Abode of Amritas. Why is that? It’s not that I think they are the best, rather that for whatever reason they are the ones that I most want to read. (I could spend another few posts analyzing the reasons for that.) But up until a few months ago, I didn’t know about either one of them. In fact, I discovered Amritas only a couple of weeks after I discovered Steven Den Beste, when he linked to him.

Which brings me to the chaos-herd intersection that I wanted to talk about. I entered the non-professional blogosphere quite randomly. My first discovery was Jon’s Radio, a technical blog about the computer industry. I found that through a Google search, when I was looking for the answer to a technical question. Jon frequently links to other technical bloggers, and somehow through them I entered the blogosphere. I wandered around aimlessly for a while without a lot of enthusiasm for the idea, until I discovered the Instapundit. I became an immediate fan of Glenn Reynolds, and started to come to him as a news filter. Somewhere along the line he linked to Steven Den Beste, and that’s when I really entered the blogosphere. Evidently, Steven’s tastes are similar enough to my own that I’m very often interested in things that he links to. He doesn’t link to much, but it was enough – three or four a day. I quickly found Amritas, and many more.

Why am I telling this story? Because I think it’s about a lot more than blogging. It’s a parable for life. Along the way it also demonstrates the importance of freedom in finding the truth. The path I followed in getting to my current blogging habits is a kind of Newton’s method – not exact directions for getting from here to there, but an heuristic algorithm for getting closer to your destination with each step. (Since it is heuristic, it doesn’t necessarily work all the time, but because it is repeated with each step, it only has to work most of the time.)

What are the characteristics of the system? It’s an organic system with three rules:

1. Each blog entry is linked to related entries. How are they related? It doesn’t matter, as long as some of those relationships are important to me.

2. I sometimes follow the links.

3. When I find a blog that I like I remember it and go back to it.

That’s it! Substitute people for blogs, and friends for links and you get the same sort of system. Or substitute businesses and customers. Or even ideas and associations. Following the herd isn’t such a bad system after all, as long as the herds overlap, giving you the chance to switch – that’s when you get to be free.

UPDATE: Evolution works the same way.

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June 24, 2004

Clever Chomsky

I found this remarkable Chomsky quote on Diary of an anti-Chomskyite (via Amritas)

The Hebrew press is much more open than the English language press, and there’s a very obvious reason: Hebrew is a secret language, you only read it if you’re inside the tribe. Like most cultures it’s a tribal culture. I don’t want to exaggerate, but the English translations on the internet are very revealing and very interesting.

I had to look at the original. What secrets are we telling in our secret language – that only Chomsky can understand? (The idea that we may be saying different things merely because we have different concerns seems to never have occurred to him. Ditto for the idea that the Israeli press is large, diverse and free, and many different things are said, only some of which reaches his eyes.) This is what I found:

Remember Israel is virtually a US military base, an offshoot of the US military system. The same reporter quoted a General as saying: ‘Israel is no longer a state with an army, it’s now an army with a state.’ If you’re talking about the Israeli government you’re talking about the military. The top political figures are almost always ex-Generals, chiefs of staff and so on. It’s not a small army, according to the IDF and analysts their air, naval, armour forces are larger and more advanced than those of any NATO power outside of the US, and as an offshoot it certainly is. So we have an army with a State, the army’s basically a branch of the Pentagon.

It reminds me of the Grimm’s fairytale, Clever Elsie:

“Elsie, why weepest thou?” asked the maid. “Ah,” she answered, “have I not reason to weep? If I get Hans, and we have a child, and he grows big, and has to draw beer here, the pick-axe will perhaps fall on his head, and kill him.” Then said the maid, “What a clever Elsie we have!”

This is the kind of reasoning that appeals to conspiracy thinkers everywhere. Chomsky would like to think that Israel is ruled by its army. It’s an absurd conclusion to anyone who knows the country – I think that Sharon is the only ex-General in the government at the moment, for one thing. For another thing, he was elected. The US also elected generals in the aftermath of war – but then, Chomsky thinks that the US is also an “army with a State,” ruled by the Pentagon.

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Nuclear mullahs

David Warren pens the scariest article I’ve read in a long time, Nuclear mullahs:

That it is close to success [in completing its nuclear weapons program – DB] is indicated by every particle of information reaching the West -- and indeed more noise on the subject is being made currently by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency than by the Bush administration, which would rather not have it as an election issue. The Iranians have been caught red-handed with at least two large undeclared nuclear research facilities, and have stonewalled IAEA inspectors in the Saddamite manner. They also occasionally gloat that they will soon be members of the "nuclear club", and ought to be accepted.

Alternatively, I'm fairly certain the Israelis, this time, aren't up to the job that they performed in 1981, taking out Saddam's nuclear reactor at Osirak in time, to a chorus of world outrage. It is too large for them -- the Iranian nuclear programme is dispersed over too many sites, and most of them are out of range of the IAF's strike aircraft, which would anyway have to overfly too many hostile or uncooperative countries. And yet the very survival of Israel must be brought into question, once the ayatollahs have The Bomb.

The US would be able to survive a nuclear first strike, even if Iran could somehow deliver its nuclear weapons halfway around the world. Israel, however, is within striking distance, and it couldn’t.

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The herd instinct

Steven Den Beste pointed me to Clay Shirkey’s commentary on Power Law distributions. Very interesting. I have long pondered what I think is the same phenomenon under a different name – the herd instinct.

The interesting thing about the herd instinct is that it’s rational. If somebody is doing something, saying something, thinking something, the chances are greater than 50% that that person is doing it for a good reason, so if you don’t have anything to base your choice on, the most rational thing to do is follow the other person’s lead.

There are two problems with this. The first should be obvious – that “greater than 50%” is not particularly good odds, just better than the alternative. But people tend to fall in love with their choices – for a good psychological reason, that being indecisive is also bad. The best strategy for dealing with this problem is to continually re-evaluate your choice without becoming indecisive – but only when you have the option of changing you mind!

The second problem is more subtle, because you have to think about it from a systems point of view, where second order effects can become more important over time than first order effects (but actually, most things in real life are like that). There are some things where even if the first person made the right decision, the fact that everybody follows the leader makes it the wrong decision. You can’t make money on the stock market just by being right. You have to be right when everybody else thinks you’re wrong. So, knowing nothing about a particular stock except that everybody’s buying it, the best choice you can make is not to buy it.

I often make choices precisely because I think that most people wouldn’t make them – in those areas where crowds are distinctly negative, like finding parking spaces. On the other hand, I don’t take that strategy in choosing a car to buy; I want one that has a good reputation! As a general strategy, I think that it’s probably best to follow the herd in areas that are unimportant to you, or in which you don’t want to bother to educate yourself.

But I would hope that there’s something important enough to you – for you to find your own way.

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June 23, 2004

Bio added

Just added a bio. It’s the link in the upper left-hand corner. The picture is me with my kids, taken next to the house. That’s a fig tree in the background.

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June 22, 2004

Hebrew colors

A while back Amritas led me to a page by Cecil Adams that discusses words for colors. It concludes that while different languages have words for different colors, “there is a remarkable degree of uniformity in the way different cultures assign color names”:

1. All languages contain terms for white and black.

2. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.

3. If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).

4. If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.

5. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.

6. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.

7. If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains a term for purple, pink, orange, grey, or some combination of these.

My Hebrew dictionary (Even-Shoshan) classifies words as originating in four periods, according to the earliest attestation. They are: Biblical, Talmudic, Medieval, and Modern (It also has a class for foreign words.) I thought I would look up these colors and see if Hebrew fits the theory. This is what I found:

Attestation Translation Transcription Hebrew
biblical black shahor שחור
white lavan לבן
red adom אדום
yellow sahov צהוב
green yaroq ירוק
brown hum חום
light blue takhol תכול
talmudic blue kahol כחול
modern purple sagol סגול
pink varod ורוד
orange katom כתום
grey afor אפור

It almost fits. Of course, attestation is not the same as origin – a word might have existed in a certain period, but we don’t know about it because it wasn’t used in any of the surviving literature.

Notice that almost all the colors have the pattern XaXoX. This is the pattern for colors. The modern colors were clearly created on the basis of this pattern, for example pink is from the word “rose” (vered).

I added to Cecil Adams’ list light blue, since this is an important color in Hebrew, though it is lacking in English.

Can you figure out which colors are out of order?

Continue reading "Hebrew colors"

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June 21, 2004

Jews fleeing Europe

Joe Gandelman reports that Jews are fleeing France to Israel.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency said a report compiled by the agency had found 30,000 out of France's 575 000 Jews were considering leaving for Israel and he characterized French Jews' situation as increasingly "difficult." This comes on the heels of French Justice Minister Dominique Perben reporting that 180 anti-Jewish acts had been recorded so far this year.

It should be noted that as citizens of the European Union, they can move freely to any European county. They choose not to do so.

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June 20, 2004

Israeli Arabs

In light of the previous post, I want expand on an issue I saw briefly addressed by Benjamin in DIARY OF AN ANTI-CHOMSKYITE. He says:

There is no question that there are issues with Israel's Arab citizens and their place in a Jewish state. There is racism and there is discrimination. It is not Apartheid by any stretch of the imagination. It is also nothing particularly unusual in states with large national minorities. Particularly when, as in Israel's case, that minority considers itself an inseparable part of a hostile regional majority.

The critical sentence is the last one. I would like my readers to be aware of the enormous lengths Israel goes to treat is Arab citizens right. Israeli Arabs openly identify with Israel’s enemies, nevertheless they have equal democratic rights, and indeed there are several Arab parties in the Knesset (parliament), which reflect their views. It is impossible to go to an Israeli hospital without meeting Arab doctors – in fact, Arabs are well represented in most professions, though it’s true that they are over-represented in low-skilled jobs.

Let me give an example of “racism” and “discrimination”. As I said, Arabs tend to be over-represented in low-skilled jobs (which, I know, some people would consider absolute proof of discrimination all by itself), but there is one job where you don’t find them: cleaning services. I’m thinking of the people who come into offices after hours to clean up. This particular low-skilled job is usually 100% Jewish labor. (In the US these jobs are usually held by immigrants.) Let me ask you: would you want someone who sympathizes and identifies with your enemy to have unsupervised access to your office (or your home)? Yes, I know we can’t be sure that it’s true, but we know that statistically it is much more likely to be true than not.

But that’s the beauty of the free market. Opportunities naturally flow around any obstacles. I, myself, not being born in Israel, am discriminated against by the Israeli government: I cannot get security clearance for a wide variety of jobs, unless there is something that makes me immensely valuable and worth the extra effort of the security check. Do I feel discriminated against? No. There are plenty of opportunities available to me. The same is true for Israeli Arabs.

Now let’s take a look at a self proclaimed paragon of virtue: France. France is a large state with almost 60 million people (Israel has 6 million.) It faces no existential threats (unlike Israel). Its population is about 10% Arab (Israel’s is about 20%). Its per capita GDP is $25,700 (Israel’s is $19,000). Which of these countries bans its Arab students from wearing headscarves in school? France.

Let’s look at things from the Arab side. Every Arab country (there are 22 of them – 23 including the PA) persecutes its own people, even the most moderate: Jordan and some of the Gulf States. Some regimes are simply hells on Earth – the Palestinian Authority and Syria, for example. An Arab who is suspected of sympathizing with Israel or Israelis (this is interpreted very broadly) can expect to be murdered by his brethren, even in Israel, even in US administered Iraq. It’s not easy being an Arab. I don’t know what I’d do in their circumstances. But I know what to do in mine: defend myself.

For those who want to compare the morality of Israel to that of the Arab states, the bottom line is this: How many Israeli Arabs emigrate to Arab countries? Essentially none.

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A View from the Eye of the Storm

Steven Den Beste discovers a well-written talk/essay (I will link to the original if it turns up) purportedly given by professor Haim Harari to an advisory board of a “large multi-national corporation” in April, 2004. Steven did some research on Google to trying to verify the claim, but came up empty-handed, so I decided to try the Hebrew Google, on the assumption that this avenue was unavailable to him.

I came up with even less information than he did – Israeli academic writing is mostly in English. But I did find this, from a summary of a seminar given by Haim Harari:

המחקר עקב אחר רפורמת "מדע לכל" בישראל מתוך 'עין הסערה' מרגע הולדתה ועד היום.

The research following after the “Science for All” reform in Israel from out of ‘Eye of the Storm’ from the moment of its birth until today.

Of course this may be spurious, but people do tend to favor certain phrases in their speech. From its context in the seminar description, what he means by “Eye of the Storm” is not what you would expect from reading the essay Steven found – that Israel is in the eye of the storm engulfing the Middle East – he means that Israel has had to deal with its “normal” problems, e.g. education, while simultaneously fighting for its survival. The implication being that these problems have never gotten the attention that they would otherwise deserve – which is very true.

As a fellow inhabitant of the storm’s eye, my reaction is: “Of course.” Even Israeli leftists wouldn’t dispute much of this – though their ideas are almost indistinguishable from the European and American left. They simply choose not to see a relationship between the facts presented in the essay and the Israel’s “sins”.

The ideological background of both Israeli Left and Right is somewhat different from the US’s. The United States has the capability to solve its problems with Middle East terror, hopefully by inducing the Middle East to reform itself, but as a last resort by waging war against it – and winning. Israel doesn’t have either of these options. It is a very stark reality, human nature rebels against the idea that we are powerless to solve our problems, that the best we can do is find a way to live with them – or hope that someone else (the US) will solve them for us. The continued strength of the Israeli Left springs from this source, though it has been significantly diminished by Arafat’s rejection of the Clinton peace plan, which Barak accepted. (I am continually amazed and appalled that this episode has been forgotten and ignored by the media, since it is clear proof of Arafat’s unwillingness to make peace on any terms other than Israel’s destruction.) The Left claims that Israel is responsible for its problems, a very comforting thought since it implies that it can therefore solve them. In contrast, the Right offers only the possibility of perpetual war – a future too depressing for many Israelis to confront.

I’ve often heard the war on terrorism referred to as asymmetrical warfare. I get the impression that what is meant by this is that the “strong” governments are fighting against a “weak” foe, who uses the only means available – terrorism. But the author of “Eye in of the Storm” points out the real asymmetry, morals:

Do you raid a mosque, which serves as a terrorist ammunition storage? Do you return fire, if you are attacked from a hospital? Do you storm a church taken over by terrorists who took the priests hostages? Do you search every ambulance after a few suicide murderers use ambulances to reach their targets? Do you strip every woman because one pretended to be pregnant and carried a suicide bomb on her belly? Do you shoot back at someone trying to kill you, standing deliberately behind a group of children? Do you raid terrorist headquarters, hidden in a mental hospital? Do you shoot an arch-murderer who deliberately moves from one location to another, always surrounded by children? All of these happen daily in Iraq and in the Palestinian areas. What do you do? Well, you do not want to face the dilemma. But it cannot be avoided.

Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that someone would openly stay in a well-known address in Teheran, hosted by the Iranian Government and financed by it, executing one atrocity after another in Spain or in France, killing hundreds of innocent people, accepting responsibility for the crimes, promising in public TV interviews to do more of the same, while the Government of Iran issues public condemnations of his acts but continues to host him, invite him to official functions and treat him as a great dignitary. I leave it to you as homework to figure out what Spain or France would have done, in such a situation.

The immorality of the terrorists is appalling. But personally, I am far more appalled by supposedly moral people who aid and abet them by condemning Israel – for going to extreme lengths to maintain its moral standards, while defending itself against an immoral foe.

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