Saturday, December 24, 2011

Say no to tyrants

... and house-elfves:

(source: NL, anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow)

If you’re wondering what Doby has to do with anything, look at this face:

Oh, sorry, wrong one. I meant this:

Oh no, sorry. I am really confusing my totalitarian right-wingers today. I meant this:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Why I support Ron Paul

1. Because my wife supports Ron Paul. Enough said.

2. I wanted to copy what I wrote on the Facebook in response to someone criticizing Ron Paul:

A. Realistically, he is the only politician that I know of (certainly, the only candidate) who shows any evidence of knowing what's going on with the economy. And, his changes seem reasonable to me: get rid of all the junk — departments in the government, FED, cut military spending (100 bases in Europe!.. against whom?.. Putin?), etc.

As to the "big guys", as my link about Bernanke shows, they are the last people who are willing to change the system. They are getting free money from FED. We need to bypass the big guys.

That is why Ron Paul is ridiculed in the media: because the big bankers want to keep getting bailed out (on a daily basis, as it happens) by Bernanke.

B. I think the biggest problem that faces us today is break-up of American society from within. Economic problems are only a sign of a greater stagnation and degradation of American society that had been happening since Woodrow Wilson took office. One can blame Wilsons, Carters, FDRs, Obamas, but these people would be unable to do what they did, had they lived in the 18th or 19th century.

So, yeah, I feel a little uncomfortable about Paul’s foreign policy. For the most part, not because I disagree with anything specific he says, but because I have been a Conservative Hawk for longer than I have been a libertarian.

I do think US needs presence abroad. I don’t necessarily think it must be done at the taxpayers’ expense. It must be done by private armies (competing with each other on free market) hired by international trading companies who have a direct stake in international stability. If those companies then want to include their "army" expenses in their bill to us (e.g., in the cost of gas), that’s fine. Let them all compete with each other on a free market to find the cheapest (and most acceptable from PR point of view) solution to the world stability. Much better than just giving an empty check to the Pentagon.

Otherwise, we’re getting a perpetual repeat of Barbary Wars. US merchants were being kidnapped by Barbary pirates, but instead of trading with another country instead or hiring their own protection, they got US Congress to build ships (using taxpayers’ money) to protect their trade.

But the bigger point is that whether one agrees with Paul on foreign policy or not, the problems we face at home are much-much greater than any potential, theoretical threat from Iran, N. Korea, or Russia.

C. Another point about economy is that it’s not just some numbers at the bottom of TV screen. It’s not just the price of tomatoes at local Shaw’s Market. Economy is the interaction between people of the society. It IS the society. Division of labor and successful exchange of goods and services are what makes up a civilization. So, "fixing economy" is fixing the society itself.

Reality is more awesome than Skyrim

Rough translation:
On July 13th, 1941, coming from Pesets district, Red Army soldier Ovcharenko was delivering ammunition for 3rd Machine-Gun Company, being four-five kilometres from the division.

Ovcharenko was attacked and surrounded by fifty German soldiers and three officers on two motor vehicles. 
A German officer left the car, ordered Ovcharenko to lift hands up, beat the rifle from his hands and began to interrogate him. In the vehicle's trunk, Ovcharenko had an ax. Without losing spirit, he beheaded the German officer with the ax and threw three grenades at the German car. 
Twenty one German soldiers were killed; others ran away in panic. Ovcharenko pursued a wounded officer with an ax in his hands. In the town Pesets, he caught up with the officer in a garden and decapitated him. Third officer managed to disappear. 
Without losing initiative, comrade Ovcharenko took documents from all the killed soldiers, maps from the officers, schematics and records and presented them to the regiment headquarters. 
The vehicle with supplies and products was delivered on time to his company. Comrade Ovcharenko continues his military life. He was raised to a machine gunner. 
— Commander of the Southern Front, General-Lieutenant Ryabyshev. Member of the Military Council, Korniets.
I do have one question. I know it probably did not escape other people's attention, but I just have to ask it. What happened between the "hands up, beat the rifle out of hands, interrogation" part and "got an ax from the trunk of the car and decapitated the German officer"? Is it just me, or is there a step missing there? Like: "Umm... Headquarters? Wait a second. Umm. I actually have a map to Stalin's headquarters in my trunk. Yeah. Just one sec... just stand there... just... whatchuhgot!.. slash..."

Anyway, I have no idea whether any of what the article describes actually happened, and if it did, what actually took place, but it's obvious that some Soviet newspapers had more action packed in them than some Skyrim let's-plays (hide annotations and skip to 2:00):

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Defending hedge funds

Hugh Hendry, a manager of hedge funds, against a socialist bastard.

I find what he says at the end especially powerful.

It's really amazing how a socialist face just invites a punch.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

I want the other half of the pile

In this post I wrote:

On the other hand, the situation is the same as in Republican primaries: all of the candidates suck, with the exception of Ron Paul. Choosing between these parties is like choosing between two weevils. 
I remember how my rabbi's father explained the difference between Catholic and Protestant church: when you're riding in a horse-driven cart, sometimes the horse does its business on the road. And sometimes the wheel drives through the horse's present and divides it in two. Now, what's the difference between the right half and the left half? That's basically the difference between Newt and Romney, between Communists and Putin in Russia, and between Democrats and Republicans in the US.
An illustration of this concept:


The poster says: "I did not vote for these bastards. I voted for different bastards! I demand a recount of votes!"

Point being: vote for Ron Paul.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


An update to the previous post about Russian parliamentary elections.

This is an snapshot of the results in Rostov region displayed on Russian TV. Add up the percentages.


I actually oftentimes hear the examples of such logic from people around me.
If slavery wasn’t abolished, women wouldn’t be able to vote, we wouldn’t have things such as the refrigerator, and women wouldn’t be able to work.

Zero here, one there

Dmitri Surnin writes:

According to the official results of the Regional Voting Commission 1701 (where he worked as an observer), these were the local results of Russian elections (party names are loosely translated):

  1. KPRF (Communists): 285
  2. United Russia (Putin's party): 271
  3. Just Russia: 218
  4. Apple*: 167
  5. LDPR (ultra-nationalists):  133
  6. Right Path: 16
  7. Patriots of Russia: 15

The above are the results that the local commission signed and sealed.

These are the results that were officially posted:

  1. United Russia: 662
  2. KPRF (Communists): 295
  3. LDPR (ultra-nationalists):  133
  4. Just Russia: 118
  5. Apple*: 67
  6. Right Path: 16
  7. Patriots of Russia: 15
Apple (Yabloko), by the way, is the only party that is even worth mentioning (it's probably as bad as American Democrats, but at least it's not as bad as Hitler or Mao, represented by the top two choices). As we can see, Apple was the one at whose expense Putin's United Russia (I know, sounds like an airplane company) rose to the top (plus, some "dead souls").

On the other hand, the situation is the same as in Republican primaries: all of the candidates suck, with the exception of Ron Paul. Choosing between these parties is like choosing between two weevils.

I remember how my rabbi's father explained the difference between Catholic and Protestant church: when you're riding in a horse-driven cart, sometimes the horse does its business on the road. And sometimes the wheel drives through the horse's present and divides it in two. Now, what's the difference between the right half and the left half? That's basically the difference between Newt and Romney, between Communists and Putin in Russia, and between Democrats and Republicans in the US.

How anyone can even consider anyone besides Ron Paul as a serious choice for the president of this country boggles my mind. How do you choose between one sleazeball and another? I am not even talking about the ideas: just look at the people themselves.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jacob's stones

Talmudic tradition teaches us that a bunch of stones were quarreling on top of which of them Yakov Avinu was going to sleep. In the end, they joined into one stone. This teaches us about unity and bittul: that in order for a group of people (two or more) to become one, they need to nullify themselves to a common goal and purpose.

What most people do not realize is that this is how the game of Go was invented: Yakov took a bunch of separate stones and connected them into a living group.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Leaving options open

When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. This does not mean that the enemy is allowed to escape. The object is to make him believe that there is a road to safety and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Ch. VII

In Judaism, there is a law (in halachos of warfare) that one should not enclose a city completely during a siege, leaving an option for the besieged to leave the city (I am not sure whether to flee or to surrender). This way, not only are you being merciful to the besieged, giving them an option not to perish, but also the ones who do not immediately decide to surrender will fight halfheartedly, the option of leaving the battle always on their mind. If, on other hand, you seal them in completely, they will fight to death — much more fiercely.

When talking about relationships, Rabbi Gottlieb compares the above to the difference between being married and dating. When one is married, one is "sealed in" (although one can still get divorced, chv"sh, the barrier to do so is much higher than to breaking up). As a result, any problem that one encounters, one will fight on much more severely and stubbornly than if one were merely dating. Even if one is in a so-called "long-term relationship" — let's say, a couple has been together for close to a year — it is much easier to break up over the same problem that one might encounter during one's shanah rishoina.

I think the same distinction applies not only to secular-style dating, but even to the shidduchim. On the one hand, one wants to find out as much as possible about his perspective spouse. On the other hand, certain things are better left unknown — until the couple are married, when such things should be dealt with. Once one is "sealed in", one fights with a greater effort and can accomplish things he did not know he could.

I am talking about things that can theoretically be solved within the context of marriage (i.e., there is a good chance that the couple can deal with them — even with some difficulty — once they come up). Obviously, many things should be known before one commits. It is a matter of balance. I suspect that the balance may be off-set in the modern shidduchim, contributing to so many people unable to find a partner for a long time.

This also touches on the idea of length of a shidduch. The shorter the shidduch, the less one finds out about one's perspective spouse. This has the danger of remaining ignorant of things that one better find out about before one is married. But the longer one dates, the more one is likely to find something out that will ruin the general "mood" of the shidduch — something that could be certainly dealt with once the couple were married.

That is why in certain communities (including, to a large extent, Lubavitch community), the general custom is to find out about the most important, crucial things, and leave the rest to be worked on during the first year of marriage.

* * *

In a game of go, one is oftentimes confronted with choices. It goes without saying that there are many choices of good moves on the board during most of the game. But sometimes one has a choice between specific moves in a specific location. For instance, if I play 1a, my opponent will respond 2a, to which I will respond 3a. If I play 1b, he will respond 2b, and I will respond 3b. Etc. The micro-situation on the board will change depending on my move.

The idea I heard a few days ago is that sometimes it is useful not to play any of the choices and just tenuki — play somewhere else on the board. (The important assumption is that the sequences a, b, and c have equal value to me. Obviously, if 1a–2a–3a exchange is more valuable than the others, I should play 1a.)

Why tenuki? Well, the point is that the situation on the board is still uncertain. Let's say, the center and the right side of the board are still unsettled. Although I may have some semblance of a plan of what I want to do, I don't know perfectly how my opponent will respond. Because of this, a situation may arise on the board that favors 3b move over 3a or 3c. But if, at that point, I will have already played 1a, it will be too late to take advantage of 3b. So, best leave things unsettled, sequences still hanging in potential, until the situation changes and I have a better idea of what is more beneficial to me.

What if the opponent chooses one of the sequences himself? Well, in that case, you will respond accordingly — and you will have played (hopefully sente) somewhere else on the board first.

Last night, a situation like that actually happened. I was playing a game in a local Barnes and Noble coffee shop and had a group on the left in which there was a choice of how to make two "eyes" (two independent sets of internal liberties necessary for the group to live). The game moved on, and the bottom and the center of the board got settled. The group which was pushing on the my left-side group from the outside found itself in a shortage of liberties if I played the right tesuji (a combination of moves). But, this tesuji was possible only because I left the left-side group alone, having not chosen in which of the two ways I can make eyes. (Obviously, if my opponent would make a move there, I would have to respond. But, he also left the group alone.)

* * *

The above concept from go can be applied to everyday life in a number of ways. The obvious lesson is to leave the options open. Don't burn the bridges. Don't seal things in until you have to. In relationships too, sometimes it is helpful not to make up one's mind about a person and leave a space for the development of the relationship and your opinion about him.

In one of his articles (most of which I happen to dislike, but this one is good), Tzvi Freeman compares it to an advice that most of us heard at some point of our lives: don't tighten the screws all the way until all of them are in. You may want to leave some "wiggle room" for things to re-adjust.

* * *

Something interesting: miai (read until the end of the introductory section).

Monday, November 28, 2011

"I only believe in the statistics that I doctored myself"

Here is a really interesting example of "liberal statistics".

In non-unionized Texas, the average SAT scores are lower than in "progressive, unionized Wisconsin". But, if you look at Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics separately, each group scores higher in Texas. (It's just that the proportion of lower-scoring Hispanics and Blacks is higher in Texas than in Wisconsin.)

This is why one needs to know basic statistics to realize that although average A may be lower than average B, each sub-category of A may be on average higher than each corresponding sub-category of B.

So, nationally:
Texas: 47th
Wisconsin: 2nd
But, for 2009 4th Grade Math:
White students: Texas 254, Wisconsin 250 (national average 248)
Black students: Texas 231, Wisconsin 217 (national 222)
Hispanic students: Texas 233, Wisconsin 228 (national 227)
For other grades and disciplines, it's the same: Texas scores consistently higher than WI and national average, while WI scores just barely above (and oftentimes below) than the national average. See for yourself.

So much for Paul Krugman's assertion that not all is well in Texas.

[source: arbat]

Baseball, go and fundamentals

From Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go by Toshiro Kageyama. I think this concept can be applied to many aspects of life.

Each spring sees the opening of another baseball season. This is one of my favorite spectator sports, but every year there is one thing that bothers me about it. That is the way that semi-professional, university, and sometimes even highschool stars enter the professional leagues and immediately display a skill that puts their veteran teammates to shame. 
There hardly seems to be any difference at all between amateurs and professionals. Amateurs play for pure enjoyment, while professionals play to make a living. The difference between them ought to be much greater. 
In every confrontation with a real American professional team it seems that what we need to learn from them, besides their technique of course, is how uniformly faithful their players are to the fundamentals. Faithfulness to fundamentals seems to be a common thread linking professionalism in all areas. If we consider the American professionals as the real professionals in baseball, then I think we have to consider their Japanese counterparts, who tend to pass over the fundamentals, as nothing more than advanced amateurs. 
The reason for the lack of polish in Japanese baseball is probably just the short history it has in this country. Each year, when the visiting American team makes its tour, I sense an improvement on the Japanese side, so that in another few decades, or another century perhaps, when the necessary progress in technique and mental attitude has been made, I expect to see a world championship spanning the Pacific. I feel certain that no racial physical inferiority consigns us to second place. 
The opposite case, where the difference between amateur and professional is most striking, is Japanese sumo wrestling. There even the collegiate grand champion has to enter the professional ranks in the third division down from the top and work his way up while being treated like any other raw recruit. Collegiate wrestlers lack nothing in body, weight, or strength, and they are gifted with the advantage of intelligence. The potential is there, all right, but on the other side there seems to be what can only be termed a thick barrier between amateur and professional, built by a long tradition among professionals of almost superhuman effort. It takes more than just bodily size and strength to become a professional sumo wrestler.
In the world of go also, a long tradition of intellectual combat has distilled the professional into something that an amateur can never hope to become. A professional has undergone elite training in competition from childhood; he has learned to view every other person as an opponent to be beaten down and crushed. His mental, physical, and emotional strength all have to be fully developed. If he lets up anywhere, it will show in his performance on the board and he will fail the professional test. The realm of competition is stark. 
No professional regrets the time he has had to spend studying. "I've never spent a minute studying in my life," declares Yamabe, 9-dan. Let two professionals get into a post game analysis, however, and they will go on endlessly, completely forgetting about time. Who will say that is not studying? 
The way young players have taken over the game can only be called terrifying. The time they spend studying every day defies the imagination. 
Professionals do this unquestioningly. Even a gemstone has to be polished. "A man is always moving either forward or backward," says Kano, 9-dan. "He never stands still." This should be every go player's motto, and he should keep piling effort on top of effort no matter what his age. He can be confident of always making progress.
And now, a lecture from Dywin on orthodox opening (make sure to increase the quality to at least 480p):

Friday, November 25, 2011


An incredibly entertaining lecture that shows the importance of influence. More of a hyperbole of a game, but still very interesting to watch. Very low-level of knowledge about Go is required. (Make sure to hide annotations and increase video quality to at least 480p.)

This game reminded me of the fight between Jin and Mugen from Samurai Champloo:

Later, Jin (the guy with glasses, a ronin) comments that Mugen's fighting style is "the lowest of the low" in terms of technique. Because of his superior agility, Mugen wins his fights — except against Jin, whose professional samurai training and knowledge of the fundamentals makes him undefeatable by such "brute force" (from agility point of view) approach.

This is similar to how the Black player in the first reviewed game above was able to progress to amateur 7 dan by playing in an unusual and tricky style. But against a professional, who knows how to use influence of a stone wall, he is powerless.

Not that there is no room for creativity and use of unusual situations:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Will they be armed?

Recently, I heard a relative of my wife tell a story of how she visited her brother on a kibbutz in Israel, back in the day. Her brother was a philosopher genius, who lived a reclusive life on a kibbutz in his own world of ideas.

"I will never forget", she said, "how one time he had to go somewhere. He got up, took out his gun, put it on his shoulder, and left. And after that experience — seeing my quiet, thoughtful brother with a gun — I have always hated guns. I hate all wars, all violence, and I hate guns. Gun control. That's right."

Now, it's quite obvious to any intelligent person that my wife's relative's logic has topology of a Möbius strip. We can agree that violence in and of itself is bad. But, presumably, her philosopher brother was picking up a gun not to go hunt some Arabs, but to defend himself from them. That is a very good argument against gun control. Obviously, if even he had to carry a gun, the government was powerless to protect him. So, he had to protect himself against the Arabs who had guns. Imposing gun control on him would take his protection away from him. Arabs, obviously, would still keep their guns.

This is a very good illustration for one of the standard arguments against gun control: making guns illegal will take the guns away from the hands of law-abiding citizens. The law-breaking criminals will look for a way to obtain a gun whether or not owning one is banned (if they are not afraid to risk life in prison for murdering someone, surely they will not be afraid to risk whatever punishment they'll get for owning a gun).

(By the way, I told my wife's relative that the states with the lowest amount of gun control have also the lowest amount of crime. Her retort to this piece of statistics was an expression of incredulity which I shall not quote here.)

But the reason I am posting the above story is that it reminded me of a quote from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels:
Eddie: They're armed.
Soap: What was that? Armed? What do you mean, armed? Armed with what?
Eddie: Err, bad breath, colorful language, feather duster... what do you think they're gonna be armed with? Guns, you [moron]!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Potential and actual

One of the analogies for the opening moves of a Go game is creating military bases throughout the world or a country. These bases do not equal territory under control, but they result in influence over a given region which, after a properly executed campaign, may become a territory.

This is one of the most interesting aspects of a Go game: to balance the potential with the actual, a struggle that also exists, lehavdil, in Judaism, both in Halacha (e.g., Beis Hillel vs. Beis Shammai) and Chassidus.

To play a stone in an empty region of the board to create influence over it before your opponent does or to play a conservative move that strengthens an already placed stone (or an already existing group) bringing existing influence closer to becoming a control over a territory? Such questions are asked throughout the opening of a Go game.

(Of course, these are just very basic concepts that are applied for more abstract calculations. Oftentimes, an attack on an enemy's base results in a sequence of moves, after which the enemy, defending his area of influence, has built a secure territory, and you have built a wall facing the center that now has a great deal of influence.)

The above introduction was to explain the following figure. In it, most of the stones played in the fuseki (the opening) of a game between two strong amateurs are marked with triangles (some stones are not there because they were captured in the mid- or endgame). The figure itself shows the end of the game. It is interesting to see which territories resulted from which opening moves...

(source: Invitation to Go by John Fairbairn)

Judge Napolitano: "Taxation is theft"

The people love their leaders

Nascar and Michelle Obama:

Russian boxing fans and Vladimir Putin:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tunnels and patches

An excerpt from Direction of Play by Takeo Kajiwara, 9-dan:

Whales and Green Peace

A very interesting post about the history of sperm-whale killing, demand for sperm-whale oil, and what stopped the killing.
When the world relied on whales as a source of hydrocarbons, they were too expensive to use as fuels, and the demand was self-limiting. 
When the whales were “saved” by petrochemical industry, it was only a short respite. Petrol-powered machinery required new types of lubricants that increased rather than decreased the reliance on sperm oil. Petroleum was plentiful, the cars filled the world, and it is at that point that the whales began to disappear. 
Literally nothing was done to save these whales until the cars evolved to the point when the engines started to operate at a higher temperature; the latter was caused by the concern about human health and efficiency rather than the well being of these whales. The environmental activists drove their cars just like everyone else, and they consumed transported goods and benefitted from sperm oil based lubricants in a myriad other ways, sustaining the demand. It was not their attention grabbing activities that stopped killing whales, but the unsung efforts of chemists finding a synthetic replacement to sperm oil. 
Meanwhile, human lives were lost through multiple transmission failures.

The reason why so many whales were killed in the 20th century was the distant ramifications of replacement of whale oil by petroleum. It took another 100 years to find solutions to these ramifications, and only then it became possible to save the whales. Ecological activism did not play significant role in all of these developments; neither did the numerous well-meaning international treaties, moratoriums, and other chest beating displays.

A chemist who saved the whales has not merited a Wikipedia entry. His name was P. S. Landis and he was a researcher at Mobile Oil.
Also, from the comments:
We still have the national strategic whale oil reserve, and if you badly need it (and can prove that to the US government), you can obtain it from there. I've heard that the gears in the Hubble Telescope were lubricated with sperm oil, though I do not know if this is true. For applications at low temperature it remains unsurpassed. BTW, it still remains unknown what makes it such an exceptional lubricant, there are only theories. 
By the 31st century, no fossil fuels will be left in the ground, so we'll be back to recycling atmospheric CO2 in the sustainable, socially responsible way, of which whale harvesting is an example. The Futurama guys get it right.
I personally think that if there is one thing that the governments are useful for is to protect the intelligent beings that cannot protect themselves (against humans). That includes old ladies and sperm whales.

Triple Go

A game of three-color go on a 13x13 board. Final position (Black wins through resignation):

A diagram of the final position


Tuesday, November 15, 2011


If you don’t like ko, don’t play Go.
— Janice Kim

A is in ko. Black (or, rather, blue) to move. I see one ko threat.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Marching we march

As an addendum to the previous post, a Bobover wedding march (make sure to watch in high quality):

State circus

In Boston, when the circus is in town, it is based in the Government Square, right in front of all the bureaucratic buildings. Everyone agrees it is a very fitting place for it.

While watching the following video, two things come to mind:

1. These countries have nuclear weapons. A blast from one of these weapons is sufficient to offset the orbit of the Earth enough to create an eternal winter, chv"sh.

2. Can you imagine Apple and Google doing something like that? Any private company? With people cheering, etc. I guess, private sports teams come close. Which make sense: after statist patriots, sport fans are the second in idiocy.

Yes, you're thinking of this:

Or this:

Friday, November 11, 2011

Importance of Akeidas Yitzchok — spiritual perspective

(limit at infinity)

In an earlier post, I covered logical arguments concerning akeidas Yitzchok. This event, however, has a very important spiritual lesson, which Avraham had to learn: we can define G-d’s expression in this world, but we cannot define His Essence.

In parshas Lech Lecha, Torah tells us that Avraham circumcised himself. In parshas Vayeira, he receives news of Sodom’s and Gamorra’s planned destruction and argues with G-d that some righteous individuals may live in them. Later, Yitzchok is miraculously conceived and born, and later yet (fast-forward thirty-odd years), G-d orders Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchok. What’s the connection between these events?

Initially, Avraham understood G-d as the Creator of the Universe. He deduced necessity of G-d’s existence from the fact that Universe functioned in an obvious order, which necessitated the source — only one — of that order. He preached monotheism and eventually received revelation of G-d, who told him to go to Eretz Kna’an to become an ancestor of a great nation. Before G-d’s revelation, Avraham’s understanding of G-d was limited to that of a Creator, after revelation — to whatever aspect of Himself G-d chose to reveal to Avraham. His understanding of G-d also was limited by his own nature. Avraham was kind and thus perceived G-d from this point of view, as a source of kindness in the world. Next came the circumcision. Chabad-Chassidic commentary on parshas Vayeira states:
When, as a young boy, Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch learned [the verse “G-d appeared to him”], he came in tears to his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (the Tzemach Tzedek), and cried, “If G-d appeared to Abraham, why doesn’t He appear to me, as well?” In reply to his little grandson’s anguished question, the Tzemach Tzedek told him that Abraham merited having G-d appear to him because, although he had indeed refined himself enough to attain very sublime levels of Divine consciousness, he at the same time knew that G-d is infinite and that therefore there were still an infinite number of levels of Divine consciousness to attain. This recognition left Abraham feeling grossly inadequate, as though he were still encrusted by layers of insensitivity to Divine awareness that needed to be removed — to be “circumcised” — in order to bare his heart before his Creator.
So, we see a gradual progression of Avraham’s understanding of G-d’s nature. He started with definition of G-d as a creator. Then he progressed to understanding of G-d as one who does kindness, chessed — from the “right” pillar of the kabbalistic tree of Divine Attributes. After his circumcision, Avraham achieved a level of being able to see the whole tree, with left side present. He was able to perceived that G-d is also a judge (as can be seen from his arguing with G-d about destruction of the Cities of the Plane: “Shall the Judge of the whole world not judge fairly?”). Birth of Yitzchok pushed the definition even further: not only was G-d the source of the world’s order, of Nature, but He was able to do miracles, transcending definitions of natural laws.

So, what did ordering Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchok accomplish? It elevated Avraham to understanding that G-d is beyond any definition or limitation whatsoever. Not of a Creator, not of a Kind Creator, not of a Just Creator, not even of someone who promised Avraham to become a father of a chosen nation. Avraham was not allowed to place any kind of limitation on G-d: natural, intellectual, emotional or logical. This new level Avraham achieved through an act of bittul, nullification of one’s ego and its importance. When being kind, Avraham related to the level of G-d’s Kindness (chesed). When asking for justice, Avraham asked for the level of G-d’s Justice (gevurah). When raising Yitzchok to become an ancestor of the Jewish nation that would proclaim G-d as King, Avraham was relating to the level of G-d’s Kingship (malchus). But what to do to relate to G-d’s undefinable Essence? Only through an act of sacrifice, nullification, removal of all definitions.

In our lives, we must do kindness, be just, keep all the mitzvos that make us G-d’s nation. While doing all this, however, we cannot allow any definitions or barriers to limit our relationship with Torah and G-d (as the Rebbe teaches). We must live in a constant act of self-sacrifice of our lives, our self-interests, our pleasures to G-d, reaching up to His Essence.

The final part of the story teaches us another lesson. In the end, G-d did not allow Avraham to slaughter his son and showed that He intended to keep his promise. Although G-d does not have to be limited by any characteristics, definitions of promises, he chooses to do so. He chooses to continue creating the world which defies His Oneness. He chooses to be the source of Kindness and Justice (and other eight spheros, whose vessels limit and define G-d’s Infinite Light). He chooses to continue having Jews as a chosen nation.

Giving us His Torah, G-d defied His own Infinity by limiting Himself to 613 commandments, to the physical world through which they are kept, to a specific nation, to whom a promise was given. A promise G-d intends to keep: that Jews through their efforts will bring about an Era when G-d’s Essence will be revealed in the materiality of the physical world, the Era of Mashiach. May this happen speedily in our days.

P.S. This also means that Hashem’s choice of us is limited to the specific 613 mitzvos. We can’t just serve Hashem in any way we want.

Atomic bomb game

Atomic bomb game
(the exhibit presents the position of the game at the moment the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima)

Interesting bit of Go history (source):
The number of go tournaments held in Japan during World War II were far fewer than those held before the war. Many young players were being drafted into military service and, because of a paper shortage, newspapers were compelled to reduce their size. Go columns were among the first to be dropped. In spite of this, newspapers continued to sponsor tournaments and games, even though they would probably never be published. 
As the war dragged on, conditions for staging even the most important games became extremely difficult. In the spring of 1945, Kaoru Iwamoto, 7-dan, earned the right to challenge Hashimoto Utaro for the third Honinbo title. However, finding a venue for the title match in bombed-out Tokyo had become impossible. 
A venue for the games was finally found in Hiroshima. However, the police chief of the city, who was an amateur go player, ordered the players not to play there, since it was too dangerous. However, when the police chief was called away on official business, the players, taking advantage of his absence, ignored his order and played the first game of the match July 23-25 under a rain of bullets from strafing airplanes. 
When the chief returned and heard that a game had been played, he was furious and fabade players in no uncertain terms from playing any more games in Hiroshima. 
Another venue was found in Itsukaichi, an outer suburb of Hiroshima, and the second game was played there Aug. 4-6. 
On the morning of Aug. 6, Hashimoto happened to be in the garden when the atomic bomb was dropped. He saw a brilliant flash of light and the mushroom cloud rise above the city. A tremendous blast of wind shattered all the windows and turned the playing room into a shambles. The position on the board had to be set up again. Under these circumstances, they managed to complete the game; Hashimoto won by five points. 
That evening, atomic-bomb survivors started to pour into Itsukaichi and the players began to understand the magnitude of the disaster and just how lucky they were. The house in which they were to have played their game was destroyed and its owner killed. 
The war ended a week later and the match was resumed in November, ending in a 3-3 tie. A playoff became necessary, but Japan was in such disarray that it was not until July 1946 that a best-of-three playoff was arranged. Iwamoto won the first two games, and thereby took the Honinbo title. 
Hashimoto and Iwamoto were important forces in the go world during the years following the war. Had they been killed in Hiroshima that fateful day, the history of go today would most likely be quite different. 
Iwamoto defended the Honinbo title against Minoru Kitani in 1947, but Hashimoto came back in 1959 to recapture it. Then, with the prestige of holding the top title in the go world at that time, Hashimoto broke away from the Japan Go Association and formed the Western Japan Go Association. Although, a bitter rivalry existed between these two organizations for a while, they coexist amicably today and cooperate on many levels to promote go in Japan. 
Iwamoto, who will be 97 on Feb. 5, has contributed much to the popularization of go in the West. In 1929, he retired as a go player and immigrated to Brazil. However, two years later he returned to Japan and resumed his go-playing career. Perhaps it was this experience that caused him to want to make go a truly international game. He has gone on numerous overseas tours and has established go centers in Amsterdam, Sao Paulo, Seattle and New York.

Just for the record, let me say this: after reading about this game, I started reading about the history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, bombings of Tokyo, etc. It is my opinion that targeting civilians by bombing raids the way Allies did in the World War II in Japan (not just the atomic bombs, but also bombings of Tokyo with incendiary bombs) and Germany (e.g., Dresden, Berlin) is not much different from what Islamic terrorists do today. Probably not different at all. And therefore, there is not much difference between President Truman who made a decision to destroy two cities full of thousands of civilians (eventually leading to the deaths of close to 200,000 people) and Osama Bin Laden.

I am ashamed of the times when I excused such things by calling them collateral damage. This was not collateral damage. This was terrorism.
Let me say only this much to the moral issue involved: Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?

— Leo Szilard

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Go Seigen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke, 1953

By the way, Go Seigen (born in China) is still alive. He is in his late 90s. Here he is young:

Go Seigen

Apparently, after the war, Go Seigen joined some sort of religious organization/cult and as a result had to leave Japan's national Go organization. He was unable to participate in the national championships for a while. Not to worry: he played in many games against the strongest Go players; the encounters were sponsored by the newspapers and Go journals that published the records of the games.

Just another evidence that you don't need government to sponsor art and intellectual pursuits such as board games or science.

Clever and wise

I just opened my iGoogle page and saw two things:

1. All the news headlines about the Euro-crisis
2. A quote from Albert Einstein (from my daily quote gadget): "A clever person solves the problem. A wise person avoids it."

The thing is: getting the government out of regulations of the economy is both clever and wise. It would cure the existing problems by allowing the capital in the markets to flow back to the proper targets (something that the politicians' regulations and attempts to "solve" the problem is actually preventing). It would also make sure that the future crises do not happen.

More reading: "Real Causes of Boom-and-Bust Cycle".

Monday, November 7, 2011

Playing Go in Russia

A good player tries to read out [ahead] in his head before he puts the stones on the board. He looks before he leaps. Frequently he does not leap at all; many of the sequences his reading uncovers are stored away for future reference, and in the end never carried out. This is especially true in a professional game, where the two hundred or so moves played are only the visible part of an iceberg of implied threats and possibilities, most of which stays submerged.

You may try to approach the game at that level, or you may, like most of us, think your way from one move to the next as you play along, but in either case it is your reading ability more than anything else that determines your rank.

Elementary Go Series, Volume 3: Tesuji, James Davis


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sister and wife

I have returned to my garden, my sister, my bride.
— Song of Songs

I have read an interesting idea from a sicho on parshas Lech Lecha this Shabbos.

The episode of Avraham Avinu and Sara descending to Egypt is well known. During their crossing the Nile river, Avraham told Sara that she should pretend to be his sister, lest she is seized by the immoral Egyptians and he is killed, chv"sh.

On a spiritual level, parshas Lech Lecha (whose main theme is the journey of Avraham Avinu to Eretz Yisroel from the place of his birth) is a metaphor for the soul's journey from the upper worlds to this world.

The concept of "sister" represents the soul; the concept of "wife" represents the body. (In this case, Avraham Avinu represents the essence of the soul, cheilek Elokah mima'al mamosh, yechida shebenefesh.)

The soul's relationship with Hashem is natural, like that of a sister and a brother (while a sister and a brother may get in a fight, it is only under extreme circumstances that they will lose all relationship, G-d fobid). The relationship of the body with Hashem is that of a wife with a husband. The relationship at first is not "natural" (in the sense that a newlywed couple have to grow accustomed to each other and when they just meet are strangers); thus, if it is not cultivated properly, it can fall apart, chv"sh. On the other hand, if it is nurtured and grows, the relationship between a husband and a wife can become much more explosive and stronger than that between siblings can ever hope to be.

This is the lesson for our avoidas Hashem. When our soul enters this world (similar to how Avraham descended into Egypt), it is in a state of weakness. It must be on guard against the foreign and potentially destructive elements of the material. Therefore, it must rely on its "natural" relationship with Hashem — similar to that of siblings, a relationship which is the result of the soul's origins. That is why the beginning of the soul's life in this world (the childhood and youth), as well as the times of special spiritual closeness to Hashem (Shabbos and holidays) must be spent with the focus on study of Torah and davening. (Also, of course, the soul must renew and strengthen its connection with Hashem on a daily basis by learning and davening at set times.)

On the other hand, the whole purpose of the soul's descent is to elevate its relationship with Hashem to a completely new level. That can only be accomplished by becoming Hashem's "wife" — by using the body to do the mitzvos that transform the world into a dwelling place for Hashem (similar to how a wife transforms an empty and cold basement apartment into a home for her husband). That is why one cannot spend all his time only learning and must also do mitzvos and interact with the world for the purpose of making it holy.

I also think, on a deeper level, that although one must originally shy away from those things that interest the body (I do not just mean bodily pleasures; I mean, more generally, the pleasures of this world, including the aesthetic and intellectual ones), eventually, it is one's purpose in this world to connect the explosive nature of these endeavors with holiness.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A tale of two cities

Or, rather, two tales of four agencies.

First two agencies are FBI and Russian Foreign Intelligence Office. The latter sent some spies to America. The spies were identified and monitored by FBI which recently released the materials. It turns out that in ten years of living in the US, this group of Russian spies did not do a single assignment. It has not collected any intelligence, has not contacted any American citizens (Anton Nosik says: "Not even a McDonalds worker, let alone a US government official"). Basically, they were just living in the US on the money of Russian taxpayers, waiting until their government comes up with some clever spying scheme.

Meanwhile, a group of FBI officers were busy monitoring these Russian "super-agents", also drawing salary of American taxpayers.

This would go on for another ten years if not for a diplomatic incident, in which the US government was forced to reveal the information about the Russian spies as a diplomatic move against the Russian government.

Anton Nosik summarizes: "Purpose is a concept very foreign to any bureaucracy. And Intelligence Service is [despite its name] the worst stage of bureaucratization for the brain."

Item 61 Photo 08 
(Sneaky Russian spies serving their country)

The second tale of two agencies is the tale of how a Florida trooper arrested a Florida police officer. See in this video:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Torah response to terrorism

US Government is feeble and inept

This is the response of the White House to the petition to investigate the injustice done by the courts to Rubashkin:

Thank you for signing the petition "Call an Investigation into Allegations of Prosecutorial & Judicial Misconduct in the Case of Sholom Rubashkin." We appreciate your participation in the We the People platform on 
As explained in the We the People Terms of Participation, the White House may at times decline to comment on certain specific matters properly within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies, federal courts, or state and local governments in its response to a petition. For important policy reasons, this includes specific law enforcement and judicial ethics matters. With respect to law enforcement matters, the Department of Justice is charged with investigating crime and enforcing our laws. The Department also has mechanisms in place to investigate allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, including through its Office of Professional Responsibility. With respect to judicial ethics matters, the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 vests primary responsibility for investigating and adjudicating claims of judicial misconduct with the Judicial Branch.

This petition calls for an investigation into allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct in the case of Sholom Rubashkin and for action to correct the “gross injustice” in his case. For the reasons given above, the White House declines to comment on matters raised by this petition.
So, basically, US White House is completely inept. That we knew before. And who is in charge of investigating the misconduct of the Judicial Branch? The Judicial Branch itself.

This is what happens when you have a monopoly, boys and girls. Nothing to add.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Goté and senté

This small section (from a Wikipedia article) describing two Go terms shows why I love Go so much. You don't have to know much about Go to understand it. It shows the kind of tactical and strategic encounters one sees during a Go game that makes it so much fun and also so useful for teaching one skills in everyday-life decision making. The last two paragraphs are especially interesting to me.

(Note: the terms goté and senté are pronounced as "go-teh" and "sen-teh" respectively.)
A move that leaves the player an overwhelming follow-up move, and thus forces the opponent to respond, is said to have "sente" (先手), or "initiative"; the opponent has "gote" (後手). In most games, the player who keeps sente most of the time will win. 
Gote means "succeeding move" (lit: "after hand"), the opposite of sente, meaning "preceding move" (lit: "before hand"). Sente is a term to describe which player has the initiative in the game, and which moves result in taking and holding the initiative. More precisely, as one player attacks, and the other defends in gote, it can be said that they respectively do and do not have the initiative. 
The situation of having sente is favorable, permitting control of the flow of the game. Applying these concepts to a whole sequence is basic to higher strategy. If Black starts a sequence that properly ends in an even number of plays, Black retains sente in doing this. If Black starts a sequence that properly ends after an odd number of plays, Black loses sente and takes gote. 
Accepting gote should only be in return for some profitable exchange. Correct play in the yose (endgame) can consist of playing available sentesequences, and then taking the largest gote sequence on the board. That description is a simplification, though. A reverse sente play is a special type of gote play, preventing the opponent from making some sente move. The relative value of reverse sente plays depends on the overall position, but one can count it as twice the value of what it would be if purely gote. 
A player has sente if he does not currently need to respond to moves made by his opponent. This can be achieved by tenuki (ignoring the opponent), as a kind of gambit. A player can break out of gote, and can gain sente, by choosing to accept some future loss, on the local level, in order to take the initiative to play elsewhere. 
In the case that neither of the players directly respond to each other's moves, the game can become difficult. Both players will have sente on their turn, and the moves they are making are gote. This will likely end in large exchanges, or one player will be shown to have a weaker position, and will have to start answering to avoid heavy damage.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Parshas Noach — floodgates of teshuva

On Shmini Atzeres we prayed for rain, which we received next day on Simchas Torah — the rain of Torah, which starts with the account of the creation of the world. This week we are reading the next parsha: about Noach and the flood. Because nothing in Torah is random, we should be able to examine the connection between all these ideas.

Torah is compared to water in many places. In Tanya, Alter Rebbe compares Torah to water that falls from high and cascades from level to level until reaching its final destination, down below. So does Torah originate in the Will and Essence of Hashem, beyond creation (Torah is one of the things said to precede creation), and cascades from one spiritual world to another, taking form of each world, along the chain of creation, until it reaches our lowly and physical universe and takes in it the form of physical laws regarding material objects.

The importance of this analogy is two-fold:

First, we need to understand that all the halachos of Torah (and the physical events described in Torah) are nothing but the superficial aspect of Torah, whose essence is beyond mere physical laws and forms. We must strive to understand the inner essence of the laws, always remember where they came from, and never allow our observance of mitzvos to take superficial, routine form of execution of rituals.

Second, just like water that originates from great heights is destined for the lowly valleys, Torah, despite originating from great spiritual heights is destined for this world — and once it reached it, it stays here.

All the spiritual foundations of our physical laws exist so that a Jewish soul can descend into this world and bind these spiritual and lofty phenomena with lowly material matter. We must be, therefore, extremely careful with Halacha and very respectful to even minute aspects of it — there are no “more” or “less” important mitzvos. Even the slightest, minute mitzvah closes a circuit connecting the matter of this world with infinitely removed spiritual heights.

In the first chapter of Torah, Bereishis, we learn about the creation of the world, whose center is human being. The energy sustaining our world’s existence has recently been renewed on Rosh HaShanah, commonly called “Jewish New Year”. The day of Rosh HaShanah, however, is not the first day of creation, but the day when human was created — because the purpose of creation is for human to transform the physical universe into G-dly world, to unite the infinite and the finite, revealing thus the Oneness of G-d.

Jewish sources describe Adam as extremely wise human with prophetic abilities. How could he sin then, knowing what his actions will lead to? The answer is: he knew the Ohm’s Law. If you raise resistance, you also raise voltage. If you connect to G-d through holiness, you are revealing G-dliness in light. If you are connecting to G-d through unholiness, you are revealing G-dliness in darkness, a much more intense revelation. In order to connect to G-d through darkness, he had first to know of light and of darkness, and he reached for the source of this knowledge.

Adam was right: the connection to G-d through darkness is much stronger. This is why this world, the world of darkness and concealment of G-d’s existence, was created, and that is why our souls descend into it. In order to know how to find life in death, however, one must first taste life. Adam first tasted death and was exiled…

In the generation that followed, Adam’s error became increasingly difficult to rectify. The world was exposed to sin, to darkness, but inner essence of darkness, the Hidden Light, was difficult to access, because this Light was not tasted a priori.

This is what the Flood accomplished. It erased the sin and made teshuva (repentance) — an act of transforming sin into mitzva — easier. The original plan was to taste Life first and, “cook” the physical world with it, enfusing it with this taste. The plan did not work — raw flesh of the deadly and dark world was tasted first. That taste had to be washed out with the Flood, and a new sequence had to be invented: humans would not come into darkness with a priori experience and knowledge of light; they would be born in the darkness and discover light hidden in it.

Mendy Deren, flanked by his father, gets on aliya to the Torah in 770 for his Bar Mitzva with the Rebbe watching * JEM/The Living Archive

It was not, however, until Avraham Avinu, when this process started. In his ma’amor Bosi LeGani, the Previous Rebbe of Chabad quotes medrash that explains that through the sin of Adam, Presence of G-d that was in this world departed. Through sins of following generations, it departed six more times, further and further.

Through actions of Avraham and his descendants, the Presence started to return, until It did so completely with the giving of Torah. The damage done by the sin of Avraham was reversed; the job of the Flood of teshuva has started. Now came the time to bring the world to its desired state: the state of unity between G-d and the world.

The sparks of Adam’s soul returned into this world in a form of Jewish souls to finish the job that he started: to do the collosal act of Great Teshuva: to return this world into the state of its oneness with G-d. Throughout the history, this process had success and had failure. Sometimes the end of Teshuva was near; sometimes it drew farther. Yet the Presence of G-d never departed this world again, as long as Jewish children were learning Torah.

Three centuries ago (as predicted beforehand by Kabbalah) the floodgates opened again. Not the floodgates of destruction, but the floodgates of life. The final act of teshuva started happening: the Essence of Torah was revealed in teachings of Chassidus — a recipe of how to complete the Return of the world to its source. At the same time, the floodgates in the material reason also opened, starting the era of discovery and increased understanding amongst the Nations. Today we have access to the deepest phenomena of the physical Universe that reveal the source (albeit incompletely studied and understood) of the physical phenomena. At the same time, we have access to teachings that reveal the source and essence of our Torah.

Just like a physicist can understand the classical phenomenon of friction better with knowledge of quantum mechanics, a Jew can understand — lehavdil — five classical levels of Torah knowledge (pardes — pshat, remez, drush, soid) much deeper with the help of essential level of Torah, Chassidus. More importantly, however, one has access to explanation of how to complete what was started in the first six days of Creation, what (after Adam messed up) was started by the Flood, by work of Avram Avinu and his descendants, by Exodus from Egypt, by giving of Torah, by building of the Temple — how to bring about the Era of Mashiach when the great teshuva of the world will be complete, and the revelation of G-d’s Oneness will be higher than it was before the physical world was created.

May this happen speedily in our days.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Norman Borlaug

Interesting fact: Norman Borlaug, a farmer from Ohio and a "capitalist pig", saved, according to some estimates, over a billion people from hunger by introducing new farming technologies, while the "green" wusses were screaming that the world would not sustain rapidly increasing population.

In other words, he saved singlehandedly more people than the fascists and communists combined killed. Than all the liberal lobbyists combined even tried to save. By: 1) doing research, 2) making money.

In the past 200 years, ever since the “floodgates [of both Chassidus and secular reason] have opened”, research and capitalism made the world better — and Chassidus saved Judaism.

That makes me think there is something right about my views.

Touching or idiotic?

In this picture (source: Artemiy Lebedev), a soldier of Latvian army is wiping the snot from under the nose of another soldier standing in some sort of ceremonial guard (Latvian version of those Scottish guards in London or Russian guards of Lenin's mausoleum).

(original here)

The idea being, obviously, that on the one hand, the guard should be immobile, on the other hand, it's cold, and he can't control his nose's internal functions, and on the third hand, it's not nice for the guard of (insert whatever presumably honorable thing he is presumably guarding in a symbolic way) to stand with snot dripping from his nose.

Some people would call this cute or touching or romantic. I call it idiotic. Heartless, non-sentimental libertarian that I am.

I call it idiotic because of the nauseatingly cloying statist pathos. But also, if you think about: someone who cannot move to wipe his nose should make a terrible guard. I wouldn't want a brainless statue guarding my property, especially if the property had some sentimental value attached to it.

Third, I find this idiotic for the same reason that I find foolish the teachers who forbid their students to slouch (or put their legs on some sort of platform in front of them) because it presumably interferes with the learning. That concept is stupid on so many levels, I'd need a separate series of posts to address it.

Is science a private good?

Connecting the dots

I recommend the interactive version.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Smoking in the restaurants

[via Alex Exler]

For those of you who are wondering what I, as a libertarian, think about allowing smoking in the restaurants and other places accessible to the public: I believe that one should not invade another's property — including his body — without permission. That's called trespassing. When one smokes, and the smoke from the cigarettes trespasses my body, that violates my rights to my body.

This doesn't mean that there cannot be restaurants, bars, or private bus stops (e.g., for the bus companies that decide to make this move) that allow smoking on their premises; whenever one enters such a place, he automatically signs a contract that allows other people to invade his body with airborne carcinogens.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why don't the Lubavitchers sleep in the sukkah?

My wife told me that loshon horah is not a good thing. So, I'll put it this way:

Lubavitchers don't sleep in the sukkah so that they should never have a cause to say: "I am sorry, you cannot use our sukkah. We have people sleeping in it sometimes."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Friday, October 7, 2011

Gmar Chassima Toiva!

If I have offended anybody up to this point, I am asking his-or-her forgiveness.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

RIP Steve Jobs

Apple has announced that Steve Jobs passed away today, after a long battle with cancer. I was quite sad to read the news. First and foremost, because a really talented person passed away, someone's friend and a loved one.

Although I have often expressed that I am not a big fan of many Apple products and, especially, its politics of micro-managing what its customers install on their own property (plus, I don't like Apple's abuse of IP), I have always admired Steve Jobs. It is clear that he has made lives of many people better by guiding Apple towards creation of many very useful products (useful to many people) and their introduction to the market. First of these products, by the way, was a computer mouse (and the resulting computer operating system based on the user clicking on icons, as opposed to typing commands... which ended up revolutionizing the way we interact with the computers).

In addition, the products that Steve Jobs and Apple introduced to the market led to other companies developing similar technologies (sometimes, despite Apple's best efforts), some of which I use as well. I already mentioned the mouse. Also, although I am not a big fan of the iPhone, the concept of a touch-screen smartphone is a very powerful innovation, and I personally enjoy using my Android phone (which I have found very useful in many areas of my life, from work to play to study to Yiddishkeit). As I have previously enjoyed using my mp3 player (mostly for listening to Chassidus at work), whose invention was probably inspired by the iPod.

I have have often used Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as examples of the people who really "govern" our society. It is entrepreneurs like them, not the pencil-pushers and demagogues in the capitals, that direct the progress of the civilization. They deserve to be richer than most of the populace, because they improve our lives in a very tangible way.

I never liked the whole talk of "giving back to the society" (even though both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gave a lot of money to charities). What do you mean, "give back"? These people don't "take" from the society; the society gives them money willingly, in exchange for the more useful (to the society) products and services.

By buying Steve Jobs's products, people voted for him (with their money — literally) to be one of the people in charge of "directing the progress". That's the fallacy of those people who believe that we need to tax the rich in order to send their money to pay for the "government" and its projects. That's quite ridiculous: the rich themselves know how to invest money in order to create new jobs, as well as new useful products and services that benefit our lives (that's how they became rich, after all).

As many people have said in their blogs, what Steve Jobs has accomplished an average person would not accomplish even in ten lifetimes.

Rest in peace, Steve. You have made this world better.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Welcome to the 21st century

My wife points out that Capital One commercial (I was showing her one on Youtube to explain why I say "What's in your wallet?" every time she mentions Capital One) says: "Welcome to the 21st century" after mentioning that Capital One has (supposedly) the highest APY of all the banks.

Which is ironic, since in the 20th century, the APY rates were higher, but, because of the governmental manipulations of the interest rate, have been steadily moving towards zero.

What the commercial should say is: "Welcome to the traditional banking." But, of course, that would be a fantasy.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Give us life

Земледелец из еврейского колхоза «Биробиджанец». Украина, 1936. 
* Для закрытия окна нажмите на иллюстрацию *

On Rosh HaShanah we asked Hashem to give us life. During the Ten Days of Repentance and on Yom Kippur, we repeat the request.

But what does "life" mean? Of course, it refers to the physical life, health, sustenance, etc. But what about the spiritual life?

There is the famous story of a chossid of the Alter Rebbe to whom Alter Rebbe gave a blessing for a long life. The chossid responded: "But not a peasant's life." I don't think he meant that he was opposed to agriculture as an occupation. He meant that most peasants at his time were people whose lives were more like survival: they went to work, came home, ate, and went to sleep. There was no purpose, no visible grand design in their lives.

The chossid wanted a life filled with meaning.

In Judaism, something is alive when it is connected to eternity. When a potential for life leaves a woman, she becomes spiritually impure. In order to cleanse herself from the spiritual touch of death, she has to connect herself back to "life": to go to a mikveh, a reservoir of natural water. But halachically, a river that dries out even once every seven years is not fit for a mikveh. It is not a permanent, eternal river. Something which is alive for a finite period of time is considered to be really alive.

How do we become really alive? By connecting to the Source of Life; the only being, the only existence that is truly alive: Hashem.

So, we ask Hashem to give us this kind of life. We ask Hashem to help us be good Jews, help us connect to Him, so that are lives are meaningful and filled with purpose.

But then, don't we also ask for the material "life"? For health, children, success in our work? What is the connection between the two requests? First, one could say that whenever someone has health, money, and success, he does not worry about such things and as a result has a peace of mind to serve Hashem.

One can, however, go deeper. What does it mean that we serve Hashem? We don't do it by meditating in a monastery somewhere in the mountains, smelling incense, and eating dried figs. We serve Hashem by interacting with the world and doing mitzvos and learning Torah — in the world, not apart from it. (Otherwise, why would our souls descend into the world? Surely no secluded monastery in the mountains surrounded by bamboo forest is as "spiritual" as the spiritual worlds from which our souls descended.) We must create a Dwelling for Hashem specifically in the Lower Worlds — the ultimate purpose for which Hashem created the world.

So, really, it's not like we are asking for two different things: for material life and for spiritual life. We are asking that Hashem allows us to be His servants in the physical world by a) granting us the physical tools with which to serve him (money, health, professional success), b) by granting us the spiritual tools (ability to daven with proper concentration, to learn Torah at depth, be meticulous about the performance of mitzvos, etc.), and c) by helping us unite the two levels, making sure that they are not independent but complement and enhance each other, and that all our accomplishments in the physical are only l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven.

And of course, the ultimate level of this unification between the physical and the spiritual will be achieved when Moshiach comes and Hashem's Presence is revealed in this world.

So, may Hashem grant us life — real and full life — this year!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Non sequitur

"Why is blowing shofar forbidden on Shabbos? Because the worry is that a Lubavitcher chossid will want to go on mivtzoim to blow shofar for other Yidden and will bring the shofar with him."
— A joke

I was just thinking that to me, the logic behind many takkanos and gezeiros of the Chazal seems very obscure. When I say this, I am not being cynical or self-denigrating or playing the Devil's Advocate. I am just stating what I think. And I imagine many Orthodox Jews probably feel the same, especially when studying some of the reasons (I stress the word some) for Halachos for the first time. We still obviously keep the Halacha, but the afterthought (if you're being honest) is still there.

It's not like this is such a bad question. Chassidus also questions the fullness of logic for some of the justifications for rabbinic enactments, with the most famous example being not blowing shofar on Shabbos. Blowing shofar is an amazing mitzva, which literally renews the spiritual energy that sustains this enormous universe and the spiritual universes "above" it. And Chazal forbid doing it on Shabbos because there is a slight worry that some ignoramus may carry a shofar?

I think there are several ways to answer this.

First, which I call the Litvish way, is that such is the law. Hashem said in Torah to listen to Chazal, and whether it makes sense to you or not doesn't matter.

The second, which I call Chassidic way, is to say that the historical and social justifications are merely a kli, a vessel, for the mitzva.

Examining the validity of Chazal's reasoning (even if one were permitted to do so) is as useful as literally judging a book by its cover. Imagine you pick up a book that someone recommended to you as truly wonderful. For instance, The Master of Go. You look at the cover and say: "I really disapprove of the publisher's choice for the cover." OK. So what? Who cares about the cover? Even if does make no sense, why do you bother examining it when you have a chance to look inside?

We were sent into this world to make it into a dwelling place for Hashem. The mitzvos are instructions for doing so. We create the world into a dwelling place for G-d by purifying it spiritually and carrying out His Will in it. The fact that His Will expressed itself through rabbis being concerned about a low-probability event does not truly matter, just like it doesn't truly matter what cover a publisher chose for a book or what color is the binding.

(Make no mistake: the kelim for the mitzvos — the legal content of the laws, the description of the actual physical activities that one must, may, or may not do, as well as the physical activities themselves — are the only way we can have access to the oir that is the essence of the mitzvos. Furthermore, according to Chassidus, even if we had a direct access to the oir, it would still be preferable to access it through the physical world, since Hashem wants the dwelling specifically in the physical matter of the Universe, it being the lowest level where He can be revealed and therefore the ultimate way of expressing His Kingship.

My point is just that when we start worrying too much about the physical reasons for the mitzvos, we must remember that the binding of the book is there merely to hold the pages, and the pages and the ink are there only to transmit the ideas.)

So, the above two explanations are quite classic.

But I was thinking this morning that we don't necessarily understand the "cover" either. I am talking especially about the people like myself that are only starting out with learning Halacha. I remembered a conversation that I had with my rabbi about "politics" within Jewish communities.

I forwarded to him a letter, in which a friend of mine wrote:
I know that [a local OU representative and a rabbi] used to eat at [a local restaurant]. I've heard that he doesn't anymore, even though the standards were tightened across the Vaad several years ago. (Since he used to eat there when the standards may have been more maykil, it would seem to me that it's a 'political' issue for some, rather than a Halachic issue). 
I do know that outside of Boston, the KVH is considered a widely accepted/respected Hashgachah (even internationally). It may be a local/polical issue.
My rabbi objected to the statement "it may be a political rather than Halachic issue". He said: there is an idea of community standards. Members of a certain community may not trust a mashgiach or an organization that is lax on a certain aspect of Halacha, because the members of the community themselves chose to be makpid on these aspects. They are not necessarily saying that the food is treif, but they would rather "when in doubt, go without". (Furthermore, even if a person is not necessarily lax on kashrus, the fact that he is lax in another area of Halacha — according to the standards of this community — creates a worry about his overall level of observance.)

The same goes for the members of one community not trusting hashgacha from the members of another community. When the second community says themselves that their goal is to make Torah as accessible to the masses as possible, and therefore, they find a heter upon heter to justify the behaviors that members of the first community would not justify, the members of the first community choose not to trust the second community's members' hashgacha. It may be about "politics", but it is still a Halachic issue. It's not the sort of politics when the president of the shull doesn't like that the rabbi got the best parking spot and therefore tries to undermine him all the time. It's the sort of politics when you hear a cook say that he doesn't believe in the existence of bacteria and therefore washing hands after the bathroom is silly — and decide not to eat his food. Or if you don't go to a neurologist whom you heard proclaim that we only use 10% of our brain.

My point with bringing this example is to say that oftentimes we look at an issue, but without a proper application of logic or knowledge of all the facts. "Does it make sense that it is ossur to move a fork on Shabbos because back in the day, people used to stomp on grapes in their keilim on Shabbos?" The ultimate answers are the first two: whether or not it makes sense to you, it's the Will of G-d, and, furthermore, the historic reasoning for the mitzva is its superficial aspect anyway; the reason we don't move muktza is ultimately spiritual.

But I also think it's unwise to think that we know all the social circumstances under which the Chazal enacted a given takkanah and all the levels of the logic according to which it still applies today.

That's why I also think it is quite arrogant and unwise to say things like: "Keeping cholov Yisroel nowadays is completely ridiculous. There is no reason for it at all." Sure, this statement is wrong from the point of view of appreciation of the process of psak din (i.e., it doesn't matter what you think; it matters what our Halachic authorities think — and it matters what the specific authorities that are your authorities think, as well as what the general consensus is). But it may also be wrong in its appreciation of reality.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Putin is running for the office of the president of Russia

And will probably become the next president.

A number of people online used this clip from Friends to illustrate how surprising this news is:

P.S. From arbat: Obama got scared that he'd lose Florida and a few regions of NY, so he did a pro-Israel speech. The problem is, however, that nobody believes in the honesty of a whore. Quite the opposite: if she tells you she loves you, you start suspecting betrayal. So, Israelis are wary about his speech, while the Arabs are furious.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Peter Jackson vs. Tolkien

First, Peter Jackson took Tolkien's middle-aged witty gentleman Frodo Baggins and turned him into a boy with the eyes of a raped rabbit. (I am not even going to mention the whole Frodo–Sam relationship on-screen.)

This is how Frodo was supposed to look:

Now Peter Jackson is going to abuse the Hobbit.

Tell me, when you read the book, did you think the dwarves looked like this (full image)?

Now, these are some good actors. James Nesbitt (Murphy's Law, Jekyll), fourth from the left, is actually properly cast. But Richard Armitage (probably known to the most from Robin Hood), in the center, cast as Thorin Oakenshield, makes the King Under the Mountain look like a playboy.

And Aidan Turner (from Being Human), first on the right, looks actually more elven than dwarven. In fact, perhaps he should've been Legolas. Or one of the forest elves from the Hobbit. (And what is he holding in his hands? Is that a sword or a bludgeon?)

According to my wife, the dwarves are supposed to look more like this:


This is my cast of Balin, my favorite of Thorin's dwarves (although Rabbi Kaplan is actually very tall, so casting him as a dwarf would be difficult):

And my cast of Thorin (not necessarily due to the looks, but due to the character):

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Interesting statistics

First of all, here is a link to the written-down version of the "Inflation and the Fall of Roman Empire" talk from the previous post.

It has interesting information about Eretz Yisroel of the times of 3rd–4th centuries, when Roman government began to put a tighter grip on Roman economy, resulting in a loss of freedom for the masses. This is just about land ownership; see the talk for the other aspects of economy.
The peasantry, known as the coloni, were leaseholders on both imperial and private estates. They too were formerly a free class. Now under the same kinds of pressures that all smallholders were in in this situation, they began to drift away, trying to find better opportunities, better leases, or better occupations. So under Diocletian the coloni were now bound to the soil. [As a part of government regulation making sure that the peasant class doesn't erode into more profitable occupations. Diocletian did the same to other professions, essentially instituting a cast system.]

Anyone who had a lease on a particular piece of land could not give that lease up. More than that, they had to stay on the land and work it. In effect, this is the beginning of what in the Middle Ages is called serfdom, but it actually has its origins here in late Roman society.

We know for example from studies of Palestine, particularly in the Rabbinical writings, that in the course of the 3rd and early 4th century the structure of landholding in Palestine changed very dramatically. Palestine in the 2nd century was mostly composed of peasant landholders with very small acreage, perhaps an average of two and a half acres.

By the 4th century those smallholders had virtually disappeared and been replaced by vast estates controlled by a few large landowners. The peasants working the estates were the same people, but in the meantime they had lost their land to the larger landowners. In other words, landholding became a kind of massive agribusiness.

In the course of this, the population of Palestine, still principally Jewish, also changed in that the ownership of land passed from Jews to Gentiles. The reason for that undoubtedly was that the only people with large amounts of cash who could buy out these smallholders who were in distress were, of course, the government officials. And we hear of them being called potentates, powerful ones. In effect there is a shift in the distribution of wealth in Palestine; and obviously, from other evidence, similar things were happening in other places.
So, the class of people who came to own the land were actually government bureaucrats in charge of collecting taxes. They offered to buy the land from the peasants and then rent it back to them, promising in turn to "take care of the taxes". Of course, what ended up happening is that they raised the rent above what the peasants would pay in taxes.

All this lead to a development of a land-owning class who were not capitalists in modern conception. They were actually tax agents of the government who gradually became feudal lords. Because barbaric kingdoms and the Middle Age kingdoms that descended from them were not run as a bureaucracy but as an army hierarchy, with a strong chieftain hiring other chieftains to fight for him and then giving them out land in reward, the feudal lords of the Western kingdoms did not receive their land as a part of holding a bureaucratic office, but as a position in the king's army (generally speaking). But it amounted to the same.

Going back to Roman Empire, we see that this process started when the government started caring about benefiting the bureaucratic class instead of the free, private people. As a result, land and businesses passed from the hands of private individuals to the hands of government officials.

Now, let's look at the statistics provided by arbat: if you normalize the new workplaces that appeared in Texas and Massachusetts, you get that per 100 thousand people:

  • 140.4 workplaces appeared in TX, 2.4 of which are in the government
  • 75.8 workplaces appeared in MA, 92.5 of which are in the government
Not 92.5%, but 92.5 places (per 100,000 people). What does that mean? It means that not only did all the new workplaces in MA are in the government, but the government even "ate" some of the private workplaces.