Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Typographic illiteracy

My wife asked me after I complained about some information on a cereal box Starting With Capital Letters As If It Were a Title: who cares? Yes, it doesn't make sense, but what's the big deal?

Well, to someone who knows about these things, it "cuts the eye", as a Russian expression goes. It's like bad writing to a literate person. Like bad breath to someone who has a sense of smell.

Artemiy Lebedev gives an interesting example of this. Yesterday, when I was visiting a local library, I saw a sign, where letters were squeezed to fit into a certain horizontal space but remain a certain height. As a result, their proportion was ruined. It looked something like this:

Most people probably don't notice such things. But to someone who knows very-very little about the fonts, it "cuts the eye". The opposite (bloating letters) is also true. As Lebedev writes, "A person who knows something about fonts chuckles at the sight of bloated letters like a child who’s seeing his reflection in a fun-house mirror".

In short, the effect on "squeezing" letters is the same as doing this to a photograph (source):

Now, not all cultures have appreciation for all aspects of beauty. Germans have a bad sense of humor. English people, as is known, kill their food twice: first, when they kill it, and second, when the cook it. French don't appreciate the value of deodorants and clean hair. Russians and Americans have the "imperial font complex" where all notices are written in caps (plus, Americans place their punctuation inside quotes).

Chinese do not mind shifting the original proportions of a photograph (source):

Dancing and fashion in a century

Definitely the 20th century will be known as the Little Dark Age. I think this is exemplified not just in politics, but also in fashion and dance/music. The clip below shows a man and woman being dressed in clothes of every sub-period from early 20th century to our times and doing the popular dance moves of the time.

I can’t really comment about the clothes (although to me, they eventually start looking not just more casual, but also more random and less thought-out), but after a certain point (after the War... or, should I say, after the reign of FDR), the music becomes more like sounds of a grandfather clock falling down the stairs, while the dancing looks increasingly more like epilepsy.

(This video obviously shows a man and a woman dancing. In the later parts of the video, the dancing is somewhat suggestive, but not pornographic. One could argue that since one is watching this video for illustrative/educational purposes, it's not, strictly speaking, ossur, but those who are makpid about such things, beware.)

Don’t get me wrong. Nobody who has seen me dress could ever accuse me of being fashion-conscious. My idea of a comfortable clothing is jeans with a striped short-sleeved collared shirt (and your regular penguin look for Shabbos with the simplest shirt and shoes possible). And my idea of dancing is a bunch of men in a circle with hands on each other’s shoulders.

Western culture is not my culture. And a spider’s web is not my idea of a house. But I can objectively observe that a spider’s web is becoming more intricate and laid with meaning or purpose as the time passes... or less so.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Libertarianism vs. conservatism in peace and in war


I think it's quite interesting that current Texas governor and also the presidential candidate, Rick Perry, is a good example of why I am not a conservative right now, why I used to be a conservative, but defined myself as a "moderate conservative", why I realized that that's really not the proper way to describe myself and why I eventually became a libertarian.

Perry's views, without going into too many details, exemplify the solid right-wing conservative philosophy (if they don't, let's assume for the purpose of the discussion that they do, because I don't really care about the specific candidates; I care about the concepts). Let's give a few examples and see what a libertarian may think of those issues.

1. Economy

Perry boasts that de-regulation and low taxation attracted businesses and increased employment in Texas. There isn't really much to talk about here. Obviously libertarians agree with this. One could say that Perry didn't actually do anything constructive here; he merely "did no harm". True. And that's what is different between him and the liberals in this issue.

On the Nolan chart (see above), the views of conservatives and libertarians about economics coincide. At least in theory. In practice, most conservatives engage in as much regulation as the liberals and do things like banning trade with Cuba. This is the reason why I originally said that it might be a good thing that Obama was elected; McCain would continue the "compassionate conservatism" policy of Bush, mess up the economy just as badly as the liberals — but in the end, the free market (which is erroneously associated with compassionate conservatives) would be blamed.

2. Defense

I actually have no idea what his stance is, but let's imagine he is like most Conservatives: believes in aggressive defense — i.e., bringing the war to foreign shores (not that once a liberal president was elected, he did anything different; he continued all the wars that Bush started and even contributed to another war... except in a somewhat shlemazletik way). Let's give in to the liberal propaganda and say that this also includes defending American economic interests throughout the world and "trying to run the world". And the latter includes trying to topple foreign dictators — but only when it suits our interests. Sure.

Well, what are the problems with this view? I definitely agree with the concept of defending oneself. I also don't really have the problem with the concept of bringing a war to foreign shores, except that in practice, the public that pays for this war has little control over what is going on and has to rely on the eternal wisdom of the Supreme Commander to make the right decisions.

For instance, instead of spending billions of dollars on building machinery capable of transporting troops across the ocean and then spending millions of dollars on actually doing that and supporting the troops overseas and carrying out the military operations with major (or minor) loss of life and money — how about, instead of that, invest enough into defending one's shores and then invest into foreign intelligence and in training snipers that will take down the leaders of foreign regimes that cause troubles? This may also result in less collateral damage. One could say that I don't know what I am talking about because I am not a military specialist or a diplomat or a historian or have a Ph.D. in international relations. Well, the point is that nobody knows, because without the market and competition of different companies doing different things, one cannot be sure that the strategy we are using is the best possible in terms of money, lives, and the result.

So, this is why, seemingly, anarcho-capitalism has advantage over statism in terms of the defense (the same actually goes for defense of our own shores, not just bringing war to their shores). Now, one could say that dissolving the government into anarcho-capitalism is not feasible today. That's true. But privatizing defense is not completely impossible. The government can give contracts to various defense (or attack) agencies, both competing and co-operating with each other, whose job will be to topple a foreign aggressive regime. The agency that does this in a most efficient way (money- and lives-wise) and the most humane way (the least collateral damage to the civilians) gets more contracts.

After all, we have privatized the production of arms. We don't have state-run facilities that make tanks, like those in the Soviet Union. We have private companies that compete for government contracts. So, why not do the same with the defense?

The argument that private companies will do whatever they want is ridiculous, because the same can be said about the government. The same forces that presumably constrict the government from doing whatever it wants (journalists, public opinion, etc.) will constrict the government from giving contracts to the companies that will do whatever they want. In fact, quite the opposite: when we have a government carrying out a missile strike against a terrorist, and on average ten civilians get killed as a collateral damage, we say: this is the best we could do. We can allow this guy to blow up a bus with fifty of our civilians or kill him and ten of the civilians surrounding him. But we don't know really if this is the best we could do, because, again, we have no competition. If we had three companies, one carrying out air strikes with a smaller average collateral damage than the others, we would know what is the "best we can do" under the circumstances.

What about running the world? Isn't it a good thing that Gaddafi was toppled (or so it seems)? But then, answers a liberal, isn't it the case that we topple only those dictators that we don't like? Isn't that hypocritical? Well, it may or may not be so, but that is not a good reason to stop toppling dictators. That's a good reason to topple more of them. Imagine a doctor who cures only white kids. Someone comes to him and says that he should stop doing business because it's not fair to the kids of other races and what he does is evil. Well, that's absurd. The fact that he doesn't cure other kids just because of their race is arguably evil (although one could also argue that it's his business, and he is free to do business with whomever he wants), but that he does cure white kids is good, and closing his business would be itself a bad thing!

The same goes for toppling dictators and getting involved in the conflicts. Just because we only get involved and do good when it suits us doesn't mean we should stop getting involved. It would seem that a bleeding-heart liberal should agree with this point. Unless he is a pacifist who thinks that we should have allowed Saddam Hussein to continue gassing whole villages or should have allowed Hitler to take over all of Europe and not get involved, because "war is evil". That's like saying that cutting a person with a knife is evil, and therefore, one should not cut out a tumor, r"l, because one "does not commit evil to eradicate evil".

One could make an argument, however, that even if toppling dictatorships is a noble thing to do, it's not our job to do that. Furthermore, one could argue that American government gets involved in certain conflicts only when pressured by the gas companies' lobby. I don't really know if the latter argument is true, but a conservative person could say to both arguments: we live in a democracy. People vote (indirectly, by electing representatives who they think will vote a certain way) for things they want this country to do. Sometimes you're in majority; sometimes you're in minority. I am willing my taxes to pay for toppling a dictator, and I am happy to support a war that will make gas prices cheaper. You're not? Tough. You are free to try to convince the rest of American public not to support this war.

Well, there is a problem with that argument and an easy solution. The problem is that a majority is forcing a minority to pay for the majority's interests. Exactly what Thomas Jefferson was afraid of: "the tyranny of the majority over minority".

What's the solution? How about we privatize all the industries which do not directly cover everyone's interests? For instance, forget about privatizing roads (for the moment). Everyone uses roads. So, we pay taxes that support the roads (that doesn't explain why someone in New Orleans should pay for the Big Dig in Boston, but that's another issue). Fine. But, not everyone uses public education. Not everyone wants to contribute to public education. I think it's a good thing for poor kids to go to school for free, but I have poor relatives who have bad health and need help with that. Out of my meager salary, I'd like to help them first. Those who think that sending kids to college to get a B.A. in French Literature for free is a good thing (after all, the more people we have analyzing Victor Hugo, the more prosperous our society will be, so in the end, we are investing in ourselves) and are willing to pay for it, let them give money to private charities or private scholarships.

So, let the government use our taxes to defend the realm. Let it never get involved in toppling other dictators or defending one African tribe from being butchered by another African tribe. But then, in addition to the government, let us have private companies running armies, whose business is to do "peacekeeping". Where will these private armies get funding? Private donations from that same majority that was in favor of toppling Saddam. And the minority that does not want to give money to that will send their charity to scholarships. Or food stamps.

The same goes for "the interests of gas companies". Instead of lobbying the US government to get involved in the wars in oil-rich regions (just like New England merchants lobbied Thomas Jefferson's administration [I know, ironic] to build a fleet and wage a war against Barbary pirates), let the gas companies support the private peacekeeping companies that will insure stability in the region.

And by the way, if you're thinking right now about the East India Trade Company (and Captain Jack Sparrow), remember that it was a monopoly. The British government gave it exclusive rights to trade with India and then, eventually, to run it. What a shocker that this resulted in a mess on all accounts...

So, we see how one can accommodate the liberal opinion with the conservative opinion, but instead of being a "moderate" (i.e., someone who either does half-measures or does some things this way and some things that way), one can create solutions that use the best points of the two approaches.

3. Gay marriage: to be continued... (I borrowed this view from my rabbi who expressed it even before I heard about libertarianism.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Compassionate idiocy

Two locals inspect a small rosewood tree that is still standing after being hacked on many occasions.

From arbat:
Rosewood is an endangered species of Brasilian trees. It is endangered because Brasilian farmers need land. Liberal government places embargo on rosewood trade. 
Question for the audience: what's the worth of the rosewood to the Brasilian farmers now? Correct answer: zero. While before there was an incentive to keep some rosewood alive in order to trade in it, now it's just complete garbage...
More examples of idiocy: lobsters and 'illegal' wood from India for guitars.

The level of intellectual maturity that one sees is that of a toddler in a sandbox. So, the local, tactical point is that whenever you have a liberal making decisions that involve any emotion, (1) he will do so completely irrationally, (2) the effect will be for the most part opposite of the intended. We see this with charity, education, environmentalism, traffic, medicine, etc.

The more global point is: these are the people who are supposed to "govern" the country. They are presumably in charge of helping the economy "recover". These are the people that make treaties with other nations on our behalf. These are the people whose decisions have direct effect on our everyday lives.

Without going too deep into the specific nuances of politics and economics — why would you take someone who doesn't wash hands after going to the bathroom and can't bang a nail into the wall and allow him to perform an open-heart surgery?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Shaving, mirrors, world-views and contradictions

(Rav Moishe Feinstein and Rav Hutner)

I was reading a seifer by Rabbi Getsel Ellinson on hilchos of tznius yesterday and saw two strange teshuvos from Rav Moishe Feinstein. They were strange not individually, but in combination.

In the first teshuva (Igros Moishe, "Yorei Deiah", vol. II, 61), Rav Moishe says that even in the times of Tzemach Tzedek some poskim allowed trimming the beard with scissors (or applying depilatory cream) to achieve a clean-shaven look. And that the Tzemach Tzedek says that doing so is begged isha (wearing women's clothes or, by extension, beautifying oneself) seems strange to Rav Moishe because when Gemara talked about beautifying oneself, it meant specifically the way women do it, which means make-up and clothes, not making sure that one's face has no hair (even though a woman's face usually has no hair, it's not due to her efforts*). And anyway, a man's face, even when shaven, is not indistinguishable from a woman's face (one can see the roots of the hairs, etc.).

So, fine, fair enough. Rav Moishe disagrees with the Tzemach Tzedek, which he is entitled to do.

It's very possible that their "world-views" were different anyway. The author of the seifer quotes the Tzemach Tzedek earlier, but says in a footnote that it seems that the Tzemach Tzedek was "influenced by his world view, and by Chassidus and Cabbala [sic]", which is also true and fair enough. We do not deny that, and if anything, we are definitely happy about that. (Arizal mentions that when one learns nigleh and, especially, when paskens nigleh, one has to go back and make sure that his learning of nigleh, and especially the psak, are consistent with Kabbalah. And one of the Acharoinim says that this is what "veshinantem levanechoh" means — to make sure that the outer aspect of Torah corresponds with the inner aspect. And, actually, Vilna Gaon said the same. The chiddush for us, therefore, is not that the Tzemach Tzedek was influenced by Kabbalah and Chassidus, but that there were poskim who were not influenced by it.)

So, the fact that Rav Moishe disagrees with the Tzemach Tzedek is not surprising or especially interesting to me. What's interesting is his second teshuva: about using a mirror. Rav Moishe says (Igros Moishe, "Yorei Deiah"vol. II, 61) that it is ossur for a man to use a mirror to improve his looks (i.e., for medicinal purposes, such as to remove food from your teeth or remove a splinter from your nose, it's fine, but to brush your hair or mustache, for example, it is not; also, it's obviously permissible to use a mirror in the cases such as when driving a car). He explains that the fact that in the end of the day the man does not wear women's clothes or that he does not do in front of the mirror what women do (put on make-up, pluck eyebrows, etc.) does not matter. What matters is that by using the mirror, he shows that he cares about his appearance! And that constitutes begged isha.

So, I am confused. And the fact that a man shaves shows what? That his face is too hot in the summer? Clearly men shave to improve their appearance (in their eyes**). Whether it is for the purpose of satisfying their vanity or because they want to look presentable for their professional environment does not matter. Rav Moishe clearly indicates in the second teshuva that he does not care about the final purpose of "priming" oneself, or even the end result — he cares about the intention of standing in front of the mirror: to improve one's looks, which is ossur for a man.

It would seem to me, the same should apply to shaving.

If anyone has any input, I would be most interested to read it in the comments. (Later, I will quote Tzemach Tzedek's teshuva in a separate post, be"H.)

[By the way, although Rav Moishe permitted shaving, he himself did not, as you can see from the picture above. Nor did he drink "cholov stam" milk.]

On the topic, see also:
"Who or what is Tzemach Tzedek?"
"About shirayim"
"Frierdiker Rebbe on 'modern' Judaism"
"Beards are natural"
* It seems that one could say that even though it is true that most women's faces naturally have no visible hair, in the unfortunate cases when they do, women oftentimes will make an effort to remove that hair. Although one could say that they do so not through shaving, but through plucking or laser treatment, the end result and the purpose are the same as with men shaving.

** Some could say that if one had the sensitivity and cultural standards of the Jewish tradition, a male face without a beard would look as ugly to him, as, for instance, a face without eyebrows or without a nose, G-d forbid. In fact, there was one godol who said that whenever a Jew without a beard came to visit him, the godol would instinctively experience vomit reflex. Which doesn't teach us a proper way to treat a fellow Jew, but shows the way that someone steeped in the proper Jewish mesoira should instinctively feel. The same goes for the arguments that certain examples of ervah are no longer such, because we have grown used to them. Perhaps if one had the sensitivities of the traditional Jewish community, one would not be used to the sound of adult female voice, etc. I mean, the people living around us are desensitized not just to female voice or forearms... Therefore what?..

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Speaking of fads... and Tzfatim

"Dancing mania (1374) — Northern European religious fad in which people danced uncontrollably for hours. They formed circles in streets and churches and leaped, screamed, and rolled on the ground, often shouting that they were possessed by demons and begging said demons to stop tormenting them.

Caused by nervous hysteria and/or the wearing of pointed shoes."
(Bellwether, Connie Willis)

Now I understand where the behavior of Tzfatim (many of whom are French-speakers wearing pointed shoes) comes from. And, as the book by Connie Willis suggests, to start a fad, one needs a bellwether: a sheep that leads the rest of the herd.

Fads in child care

"Dr. Spock (1945–65) — Child care fad, inspired by the pediatrician's book, Baby and Child Care, growing interest in psychology, and the fragmentation of the extended family.

Spock advocated a more permissive approach than previous child care books and advised flexibility in feeding schedules and attention to child development, advice which far too many parents misinterpreted as letting the child do whatever it wanted.

Died out when the first generation of Dr. Spock–raised children became teenagers, grew their hair down to their shoulders, and began blowing up administration buildings."

(Bellwether, Connie Willis)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A stretch of bad luck

It’s looking very bad for Obama. This week,  his presidential seal even fell off his podium. Talk about a sign....
(Obama, looking at the falling American economy — source)

"Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all 'right-thinking people'. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as 'bad luck'."
— Robert Heinlein, science fiction writer

“We had reversed the recession, avoided a depression, gotten the economy moving again. But over the last six months we’ve had a run of bad luck.”
— Barack Obama, science fiction president

[via Istapundit through arbat]

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ein od milvado

"In the heavens above and on the earth below, there is nothing but Him."

It says that the heavens are mentioned first, because it is easier to conceive that there is only Hashem in the spiritual worlds, since they are far away from us conceptually, such that "the spiritual" is some abstract concept anyway, so that it's possible to imagine that all there is "up there" is just G-d or G-dliness or "mind of G-d" or some other such fuzzy idea.

But our world -- it's much more difficult to comprehend how it can be said about it that there is nothing but G-d. What about the sky, the leaves, the ground, the annoying construction company that will turn off the water in the area 11 pm to 5 am on Friday night? Surely, they exist!

So, many explanations can be brought from Kabbala, Chassidus, philosophy, but one can also think of it in a simple way, due to the contributions of modern science.

Modern science tells us that everything is emptiness. Not for the most part, but in reality. As the famous fantasy writer Terry Pratchet put it (I will find the exact quote later), most of the universe is empty, because most of its existence consists of keeping tabs on those parts which are not empty. And this doesn't just means the expanses of space between the galaxies. I mean, inside the chair you're sitting on, most of the space is just "instructions" on how the elementary particles should interact with each other.

But those "instructions" come themselves from the properties of the particles. (The way I put it to someone: let's say you have an observation of a law that if you have a skinhead and a hippy meeting in a street, they will always get in a fight. Now, is this law "imposed" on the hippy and the skinhead from the outside, or is it a sequence of their properties ["skinheads hate pacifists" and "hippies hate racists"]? It would seem the latter.)

And those properties -- what are they properties of? It seems that they are just properties of empty pieces of space. These properties interact with each other; they get assigned to other pieces of space; the pieces of space they were assigned to get other properties, and so on.

Now we have to bring in Chassidus and to say that everything is created every second ex nihilo, by G-d. So, every single moment aspect of space-time is created by G-d, and He assigns to every single aspect of space certain properties, which interact (according to the laws that He set up) with each other in time.

So, looking at this web-site, or the next time you're outside, in the fresh air, think about it: all of the Universe is filled with Dvar Havaya, the speech of G-d.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Body and soul, part 3

brain, heart, soul, body

I am continuing my musings (including links from Chassidic texts) about body–soul relationship.

Part 1.
Part 2.

In this part, I would like to quote Mitteler Rebbe from prakim 10 and 12 of his Sha'ar HaYichud, the Gate of Unity.

Briefly, as a background, in Chapter 10, Mitteler Rebbe says that there are three levels of unity within the Essence of the Infinite Light. At the first level, it is impossible to say that there are 10 Spheroes "unified", because they exist in absolute simplicity. The Rebbe gives an example of the soul, which has power of kindness, power of intellect, power of sight, etc. But in the essence of the soul (Yechida), these powers are not unified; they exist in potential. I.e., you don't have many different forces rooming together in the essence of the soul. You have one phenomenon, which has a potential to be expressed in a number of different ways.

The second and third level involve estimation and preparation of a force to be expressed in action. On these two levels, one can say that different forces of the soul exist in unification with each other, since they are indeed distinct forces; it's just that they are still unified, because they have not yet been actualized.

What's interesting to me at this point is the language the Mitteler Rebbe uses when talking about the actualization of the soul's power (the brackets are from the translator and editor; I am not copying the Hebrew text, because it's a major pain to edit, but you can refer to the original in the above link):

[All of these three levels] are before anything came out into actuality. For example, in the power of movement, [this entire estimation] is before any actual physical movement. Or, in the spiritual force, [this preparation] is before it actually comes into a physical body. 
Then, there is a change from a spiritual existence to a physical existence, such as a physical movement and physical life force. The same is true in the example of the physical growth. 
For this [change of existence] it is necessary for there to be an initial Tzimtzum — contraction and restrains in the revelation of the spiritual [potential]. This is so that there may be a [transition] from spiritual to physical (as will be explained in chapter 12).
Examining this loshon, one gets the impression that Mitteler Rebbe would not agree that the force that results in a growth of a limb is the same phenomenon as the growth itself — or, indeed, the physiological processes in the limb that constitute the growth. Instead, the Rebbe insists, there is a tzimtzum between the spiritual force and the physical process that results from the "actualization" of the force in the body. Just, one might say, as there is a tzimtzum between the Light that creates a stone and the actual chomer/tzura of the stone.

Going further, to the relevant part of Chapter 12, we find this analogy for the Tzimtzum of Oir Ein Soif:
The second type of analogy [of Tzimtzum], which is the life of the soul [as it is invested] in the body, also brings out the same point as above. This is that in order for there to be a change from the essential spiritual life of the soul, to a [physical] life of flesh, it is necessary for there to be an initial concealment and contraction of the light of the soul. This is because there is no comparison between them. 
Nonetheless, the soul is affected by the occurrences of the body. Therefore, even the light of the physical life [force] is connected and bound with the spiritual light of the essence. This is similar to [how the aforementioned] physical growth is bound to the spiritual power of growth. [Note the distinction! — CA]
However, when one’s [physical] limb becomes severed [G-d forbid,] this does not cause a loss to the spiritual light and life force of that limb. The proof of this is from [the fact that] a blind person can give birth to a whole person, as is known. This [shows that] the spiritual [life force] is merely concealed, but it still exists, hovering over the physical life force of the body. This is called “Tzelem Ish — The form of man”. This is similar to how the aforementioned [breadth and length of] knowledge which is concealed, [encompasses the brief teaching,] etc. (All of this is explained elsewhere at length.) 
Likewise, when the spiritual power of movement comes into an [actual] physical movement, it becomes constrained within itself *. Nonetheless, the physical movement is connected and bound to the spiritual [power of] movement. There are many other examples of this as well, such as the matter of having insight into a particular concept, which comes from the power of conceptualization [of his soul], which rests upon him in a concealed [fashion]. [This means that in order for there to be a particular flash of insight into a particular field of knowledge, it is necessary for there to be a Tzimtzum in his essential power of conceptualization (Koach HaMaskil).]
[* I am not sure what "it becomes constrained within itself" means. — CA]
Again, it seems that the Rebbe is saying that "there is no comparison" between the "life" of the body and the soul power that is the source of that life, the former being spiritual and the latter physical.

Although, one could also interpret the above as the Rebbe saying that there needs to be tzimtzum between the Light of the soul as it exists in Yechida (the essence of the soul) and the specific koach of the soul as it enlivens the specific body part (e.g., koach ha'reiyah as it "enlivens" the eye, the visual cortices, etc.). It would seem to me, however, that the first interpretation is closer to the pshat of the text.

The nature of the bottom-to-up influence of the body on the soul is not as clear to me from the text.

But the above text does seem to answer my objection to the idea that soul is the tzura of moach vis-a-vis brain death: if the cortex is destroyed, then the tzura of the cortex is destroyed; in that case, the soul is no longer there... and yet we rule Halachically that the person is alive. Based on what the Mitteler Rebbe said about loss of the limb and the life-force of the limb not being lost, but "hovering over the physical life-force of the body", one could answer my objection: certain aspects of the soul (koach ha'maskil, for instance) have become concealed and disconnected from the body, since their keili has been destroyed, r"l, but, first of all, the rest of the soul is still connected to the body, since those of its powers that enliven it (and are responsible for breathing and heartbeat, for instance) are still present, and second, koach ha'maskil is "hovering" over the life-force of the body; it has not been disconnected, merely concealed.

To be continued...

Turks vs. British looters

One of the comments to my previous post about lootings in London said:
I think your point [about self-defense] definitely has some validity to it, but I believe it's too late for that at this point for what's going on in London. If people did take to the streets today, I think it would only exacerbate an already out of control situation. [...] Violence breeds violence is an appropriate phrase here. Sure, as a preventative measure it might work really well, but it can't be encouraged once the violence has already started. I don't think that would help at all.
Here is a video of Turkish store owners from London defending themselves and their stores quite successfully from the looters, while the police drive on in their cars and do not get involved:

Meanwhile, the UK Prime Minister acknowledged that his police was useless and incompetent.
Former Cabinet minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind also raised concerns that officers were instructed to "stand and observe looting".
I repeat the questions I've asked in many different contexts:

1) If this were a CEO of an insurance/protection company, whose personal profits depended on how well his company does its job, would this happen?

2) If there were a few competing policing agencies, whose customers, in case of a given agency's incompetence, would switch to the other agencies (the way people switch from one cell phone company to another or switch to Apple after their PC has crashed one too many times), would this happen?

3) Would this happen in Texas?

Also, from here:
The Mumbai massacre could happen in London tomorrow; but probably it could not have happened to Londoners 100 years ago. 
In January 1909 two such anarchists, lately come from an attempt to blow up the president of France, tried to commit a robbery in north London, armed with automatic pistols. Edwardian Londoners, however, shot back – and the anarchists were pursued through the streets by a spontaneous hue-and-cry. The police, who could not find the key to their own gun cupboard, borrowed at least four pistols from passers-by, while other citizens armed with revolvers and shotguns preferred to use their weapons themselves to bring the assailants down. 
Today we are probably more shocked at the idea of so many ordinary Londoners carrying guns in the street than we are at the idea of an armed robbery. But the world of Conan Doyle’s Dr Watson, pocketing his revolver before he walked the London streets, was real. The arming of the populace guaranteed rather than disturbed the peace. 
That armed England existed within living memory; but it is now so alien to our expectations that it has become a foreign country. Our image of an armed society is conditioned instead by America: or by what we imagine we know about America. It is a skewed image, because (despite the Second Amendment) until recently in much of the US it has been illegal to bear arms outside the home or workplace; and therefore only people willing to defy the law have carried weapons. 
In the past two decades the enactment of “right to carry” legislation in the majority of states, and the issue of permits for the carrying of concealed firearms to citizens of good repute, has brought a radical change. Opponents of the right to bear arms predicted that right to carry would cause blood to flow in the streets, but the reverse has been true: violent crime in America has plummeted. 
There are exceptions: Virginia Tech, the site of the 2007 massacre of 32 people, was one local “gun-free zone” that forbade the bearing of arms even to those with a licence to carry. 
In Britain we are not yet ready to recall the final liberty of the subject listed by William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England as underpinning all others: “The right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence.” We would still not be ready to do so were the Mumbai massacre to happen in London tomorrow. 
“Among the many misdeeds of British rule in India,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “history will look upon the act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.” The Mumbai massacre is a bitter postscript to Gandhi’s comment. D’Souza now laments his own helplessness in the face of the killers: “I only wish I had had a gun rather than a camera.”

East and West, take 3

I mean, take five.

I think this is quite awesome. On multiple levels. (Source: Alex Exler.) The video starts at 0:08.

The original.

See also this (Soviet soldiers and breakdancing).

P.S. I am quite sure I saw a cartoon or a short clip with the Take Five music in the background. It was not the Pink Panther, but something quite similar to it in style. If someone remembers what it is, please comment.

P.P.S. Got it!

American beauties

“We live in America, not Russia.” True dat. And that's why my wife's little cousin is taking a class in his school called “Russian Math”. You know, the one where they do the... times.

Go public education. Go American culture.

But then again, if you asked your average yeshiva bochur this question... See also: "We don't need no education". (I really should get to it and post the sources from our mesoira about the importance of learning science.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Where do these people get such potent drugs?

It's amazing how Russians seem to have no-ending supply of psychotic drugs which amaze the world with the creativity they induce.

This clip is about the theory that when leaders of the world (so to speak) will come to US to discuss the nuclear armament proliferation, they will be invited to a secret Disneyland that is currently under construction. The roller-coasters in the Disneyland derive from the concept of Satan's fall from Heaven to Hell and induce the same effect on those who ride them, after the Disney engineers have finally figured out the perfect design. Apparently, the previous pope was against the roller-coasters, but he died before this doctrine was published (and Disney had something to do with the pope's death). Etc., etc.

The funniest thing is how many people believe in this.

The truth, of course, is much more sinister. You don't need to use supernatural explanations to show that the concept of any government, whether the one with Obama or any other, is evil. Some are just more evil than others.

All I have to say is this:


Contribution of Russia and England to world literature in 16th century

(Ivan IV Vasilyevich, "the Terrible", moments before going under chuppa)

For those who think that Mongol invasion had no effect on Russia, ponder these facts:

In in the 11th century, in the times of Yaroslav the Wise, Russia was one of the most civilized countries in Europe, drawing on the rich traditions of Roman and Byzantine Empires. The West was in the middle of Middle Ages. When the daughter of Yaroslav married the son of the French king, she was the only one in the court who used cutlery while eating, knew how to read and write, and did not pass gas in public. She also bathed at least once a week, which put her ahead of the vast majority of French people up until modern times.

Now, let's fast-forward to the 16th century. Russia has recovered from Mongol invasion. It is a centralized state, the largest in Europe, extending from boundaries with Poland to Siberia. It has defeated its worst enemy, Mongol-Tatars, decisively and took their last stronghold, Kazan. It trades with Italy (at around this time, vodka, known as "wheat wine", brought by Genoese sailors to Russia, becomes popular; before then, Russians drank mead), England (around this time, Russians start playing soccer and drinking tea) and other European states. It competes with such super-states of the time as Poland and Turkey, establishing Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Black sea and Caspian regions lasting until the 20th century.

England is also a centralized state competing with its enemies, France and Spain, for exploration and colonization of the Western hemisphere. It has just defeated Spanish Armada using the island of Ireland as the main weapon. Around this time, England is experimenting with potato as the new future staple food of Europe.

So, let's take examples from English and Russian 16th-century literature.

England (Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare):
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! 
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows. [...]
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.
Russia (Domostroy, ed. by monk Silvester):
But if your wife does not live according to this teaching and instruction, does not do all that is recommended here, if she does not teach her servants, then the husband should punish his wife. Beat her when you are alone together; then forgive her and remonstrate with her. But when you beat her, do not do it in hatred, do not lose control. A husband must never get angry with his wife; a wife must live with her husband in love and purity. 
You should discipline servants and children the same way. Punish them according to the extent of their guilt and the severity of their deed. Lay stripes upon them but, when you have punished them, forgive them. 

Second Amendment

This is what happens when you disarm the populace:
Stripped: A worrying picture from Twitter shows a man apparently in Deptford appearing to have his clothes removed as another man looks on

Aftermath: Burnt out buildings in Croydon are doused down following Monday night's rioting
(More here. Much more here. See also this. It's interesting that the girl blames the "rich people". I guess, Obama would say that "they can afford it". Or something about marginal utility.)

I am not saying anything against the police this time (even though, again, with the state having monopoly on policing, we simply don't know how effective the policing might have been had it been done by a number of competing private organizations). But the simple truth is that there aren't enough of them, whatever they are armed with. (Although, one could say that living in a police state tends to create a tension between the populace and the "ones in power". While living in a welfare state tends to create a sense of entitlement for good life without any effort. And when you combine the police state and the welfare state...)

And this is what happens when you allow people to arm themselves — a bunch of self-armed Koreans protecting their store during 1992 Los Angeles riots:


I could link to a bunch of stories of 80-year-old men shooting a bunch of punks trying to rob a store, etc., but it's not necessary. The simple truth is that the best protection is self-protection, and not everyone can do this:

By the way, arbat notes that the most popular items on UK list right now are baseball bats and police bats. I guess if you won't let the people arm themselves one way, they will go the alternate route. Just like if you implement price control, you will at the same time create deficit and black market. As the weird mathematician from Jurassic Park said, "Nature finds the way".

P.S. A nice collection on the topic from Istapundit.
It is fascinating to see how postmodern Western societies react to wide-scale rioting, looting, and thuggery aimed at innocents. In Britain, politicians contemplate the use of water cannons as if they were nuclear weapons; and here the mayor of Philadelphia calls on rappers to appeal to youth to help ease the flash-mobbing that has a clear racial component to it (is the attorney general’s Civil Rights Division investigating?) [...]

We seem able to admit that massive federal and state entitlements have created a sense of dependency, a loss of self-respect and initiative, and a breakdown of the family, yet we still seem to fear that trimming the subsidies would lead to some sort of cold-turkey hyper-reaction. We assume that society is to blame for disaffected youth and therefore are hesitant to use commensurate force to quell the violence or even to make it clear that perpetrators are responsible for their own conduct. Yet at some point — when the violence reaches middle-class communities or, in serial fashion, downtown or suburban stores — we likewise assume that sufficient force will be used. Sociological exegesis will go out the window. Reality has a way of dispelling such cognitive luxuries.


One of the more depressing things about these riots is the way that the only thing that the Police can think of to say to us non-looters and non-arsonists is: “Don’t join in” and “Let us handle it”. If the bad guys start to torch your house, let them get on with it. If they attack your next door neighbour, don’t join in on his side. Run away. Let the barbarians occupy and trash whatever territory they pick on and steal or destroy whatever property they want to. 
There was a fascinating impromptu TV interview with some young citizens of Clapham last night, not “experts”, just regular citizens, one of whom stated the opposite policy. Law abiding persons should get out of their houses, he said, en masse, and be ready to defend them.

The trouble with “letting the Police do their job” is that in the precise spot in which you happen to live, or used to live, their job probably won’t start, if it ever does start, for about a week. In the meantime, letting the Police do their job means letting the damn looters and arsonists do their job, without anyone laying a finger on them, laying a finger on them being illegal. This is a doomed policy. If most people are compelled by law to be only neutral bystanders in a war between themselves and barbarism, barbarism wins. The right to, at the very least, forceful self defence must now be insisted upon.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What is redemption?

First, some links:

The best thing I can recommend for learning on Tisha B'Av is the excellent (many people have told me the best they've encountered) class on what Geula and Moshiach mean by my mashpia: "A Vision of the Future" (if you find the quality of the sound too low for understanding, I suggest you use headphones or turn off your air conditioner; or, better yet, download it and listen on your iPod).

Another good class to listen to is one by Rabbi Paltiel: "Diminishing the sadness of Tisha B'Av through simcha".

* * *

My wife and I had the pleasure to spend this Shabbos with my mashpia, Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin and his family, who were visiting New York. During the farbrengen, he spoke about the idea of the number three, which is a bit of a magical number in Judaism: it signifies at the same time permanence (an event repeating three times becomes a chazakah) and a union of the two opposites.

We see this in the idea of the third Beis HaMikdosh. It will be at the same time a permanent Beis HaMikdosh which will never be destroyed, and it will combine the best aspects of the first two Temples.

The first Beis HaMikdosh represented the idea of top–down relationship between Hashem and Jews. The times of the First Temple were the times of prophecy, of miracles (in the Temple), of G-dly revelation (to the point of revelation of Hashem's Essence, which went even beyond the concept of miracles). The problem was, however, that this reward, this relationship were unearned. The Jews would come to the Temple, receive amazing revelation, and still remain unchanged. Therefore, the Jews were free to degrade in their spiritual status, despite the moments of awesome influence.

The second Beis HaMikdosh was reverse: all about the idea of Jews' effort. There was no prophecy, no open miracles, no infinite revelation. It was all about one's work. Which meant that the reward was earned and internalized, but it also meant that a Jew did not receive the infinity of G-d — rather, only a limited degree of revelation that was proportionate to his spiritual level. When the spiritual level of the Jewish people fell low enough, they became automatically unworthy of Beis HaMikdosh.

Because of the two limitations of the two temples — in the first one, that the reward was unearned and not internalized, and in the second, that the reward and relationship were limited and subject to the level of a person and thus also subject to the eroding forces of time and space — both were not permanent.

And this is what the Third Beis HaMikdosh will combine: at the same time, the awesomeness and infinity of top-to-bottom revelation and the internalization of that revelation into the souls and bodies of the Jews themselves due to their bottom-to-top effort.

This is something for us to look forward to and to pray for. But on a certain level, we are also required to bring this about by corresponding to this level ourselves. Now, this is a very difficult thing to do: how do you reconcile the infinity and the finitude?

Nevertheless, this is what is required of us, and this is, as one of the guests at the farbrengen said, to a certain degree the essence of Chassidus Chabad of the seventh generation: to remain someone fully connected to holiness, to spirituality, to Torah and mitzvos, to Chassidus, to uncompromising standards and mesirus nefesh, to ignore the scoffing and the influence of the world outside — and, at the same time, to remain connected with the world, to the point of not only interacting with it, but also influencing it.

One could say: this is a very difficult thing to do. Rabbi Rivkin told a story of Rabbi Segal who complained that the assignment given to him by the Rebbe was very difficult. The Rebbe responded: "Since when did you make a contract with the Almighty for an easy life?"

Point being: we are here for a purpose. If you want to just live your life away, not worried about anything except yourself, fine. You can do that. And I don't mean eating cheeseburgers. An intelligent person recognizes the truth of Torah and the value of mitzvos for himself, for his neshama. So, one can learn Torah, do mitzvos, live in a wonderful community, enjoy his life, both physically and spiritually — and what's wrong with that?

What is wrong is that we are still in golus; Beis HaMikdosh is not here; Moshiach is not here, and the purpose for which Hashem created this universe has not been fulfilled.

So, the Previous Rebbe said: In these times, called the heels of Moshiach, everyone must ask himself: "How am I contributing to the coming of Moshiach and geulah?"

And his follower, our Rebbe, answered that question for himself and gave each of us an opportunity to answer it as well.

P.S. See also this article about the number three in Judaism.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Public property and paintings

The picture:

(more here)

The artist:

(more here)

My point is not who is right or who is wrong. On the one hand, emotionally, one can see that he did (and does) something beautiful, and he didn't damage the "public property" in any way; it is definitely an improvement over graffiti or just empty concrete. On the other hand, yes, he did commit an act of "unsanctioned painting and writing on public property" without getting permission from "the public".

Incidentally, "the public" in such cases tends to be some local bureaucrat, who, for the most part, was never even elected by the people. Nor can he be replaced by the people; he might get replaced through an elected official, but only if he does something truly terrible. So, in what sense these bureaucrats represent the will of people is not completely clear to me. See more about the rule of civil service here. In particular, this video:

What my point is, however, is that had this been private property, things would be much simpler:

1) Either the owner would agree for the artist to paint on his property or he would not. This way, there would be much less legal, moral, emotional, utilitarian, and "rights-ethics" ambiguity.

2) A private owner (while interested in protecting his property from random vandalism, graffiti, obscene writing and pictures) would probably be quite happy to have such a painting as the above on his dock, since not only would it be aesthetically pleasing to him and the public, but it would also make his dock more attractive and more famous thus increasing his profit.

(On the other hand a bureaucrat does not care about making what he is in charge of profitable. If his budget — assuming he has one — is unbalanced, or the "public property" he is in charge of is losing money, he can always get more money from taxes or government printing/borrowing money.

And obviously he will say that he needs more money, since what he is charge of is benefited from by "everyone", even if it is a dock in Volgograd, while he is taking money from a restaurant owner in Moscow. With private business it is much simpler. If the restaurant owner from Moscow makes use of the dock in Volgograd, the dock owner can send him an invoice.)

The artist's rendition of government and bureaucratic civil service:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Waiting in front of an open door

(source of the picture)

One day, Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi met Eliyahu Hanavi in Peki'in, at the entrance of the cave where Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai had hid. "When will Moshiach come?" Rebbi Yehoshua asked Eliyahu. "Go ask him [Moshiach]," he replied. "He is sitting in Gan Eden, parallel to the entrance of Rome, amongst the suffering paupers. He cleans his wounds one at a time, so that if he is suddenly summoned to redeem the Yidden, he will not tarry for even a moment."

Rebbi Yehoshua went to the gates of Rome and asked Moshiach, "When will our master come?" "Today!" Moshiach assured him. Evening came, but Moshiach did not reveal himself. Rebbi Yehoshua returned to Eliyahu Hanavi, "Moshiach lied to me! He said he would come today and he did not." Eliyahu explained, "He was referring to the 'today' of the possuk, 'Today, if you will listen to Hashem's voice...'"
(סנהדרין צח ע"א)

Since I like the above source of Jewish pictures, here are a couple more (another old man and a child):


(My wife says: This child's face is clearly modern and not chassidic. Oh well...)

Red Bull commercial

I have been considering for a long time to monetize my blog. Today is the first step: a commercial for Red Bull from Norvezhskiy Lesnoy and Artemiy Lebedev. (For those who don’t speak Russian, the video is quite self-explanatory.)

What to do if you ran out of washing water on a ship? PG-13.

“To drink this rubbish is completely impossible. But for other purposes, such as brushing your teeth, refreshing yourself, cleaning your ears, etc., it’s quite good.”

Busting traffic in cities

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Kamyshin and Chapayev

Artemiy Lebedev, Norvezhskiy Lesnoy et al. are continuing on their journey down Volga river. I skipped a bunch of videos because they weren't that interesting to those "not in the parsha", so to speak (i.e., those who don't speak Russian, known anything about Russia, are not interested in Lebedev's adventures, etc.). But this one was somewhat interesting, so I am posting it.

In this adventure, Lebedev and Lesnoy find a house with a structure that looks like public toilet in the yard. Then one of the denizens shows up and explains that because central sewage is broken both inside the house and for the outhouse, the sewage gets expelled right to the yard. So, basically, people live on a central street of one of the Russian cities in conditions of Medieval France. (Not just socio-economically, but also politically. At least they don't live in medieval Russia anymore.)

Next, Lebedev finds a sign that states that one is not allowed to enter a park after dark. He says: "I have seen such things before only in America."

Afterwards, Lebedev and Norvezhsky discuss whether the city is a [censored] or a nice place (except for that one house), Lebedev is asked to help with the correction of a bus schedule, and Lesnoy finds a leaf of marijuana. As usual, Lebedev notes old buildings in Russian cities that are gradually being destroyed and replaced with modern monstrosities. (Whenever possible, on such trips, Lebedev unscrews old Soviet and imperial signs to take to his studio. Because Russian authorities will just destroy the signs, while he will preserve them.) Now that you have my libretto, you can understand what's going on:

In this video, Lebedev and Lesnoy (wearing European shorts) visit Chapayev's house and look at a unique-looking cigarette kiosk:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A penny for your thoughts (take 2)


I heard recently a story on the Living Torah (whoever has seen this Living Torah or knows this story can correct or supply the details in the comments).

When one of the Rebbeim was arrested (I think it was Tzemach Tzedek), a chossid of his came to Petersburg from Lubavitch (I clearly remember it was Lubavitch, which makes me think it was not Alter Rebbe who was arrested, but I may be wrong) to support the Rebbe, or carry out some mission, etc. He was met by another chossid, who was a permanent resident of the capital, and they were walking on Nevsky Prospect, one of the main streets of Petersburg.

The first chossid got dressed that morning the way he normally got dressed in Lubavitch, i.e., not paying too much attention to his looks, and as a result, he missed a button on his pants (19th century's equivalent of "his fly was partially unzipped"). The second chossid noticed that and pointed it out to the first chossid, saying: "We are on Nevsky Prospekt; it's not proper to be dressed this way."

The first chossid looked at him, astonished, and asked: "Is this what's on your mind?"

I think the point is not that the first chossid disagreed that chassidim need to be dressed in a presentable way, l'hatchillo. He was just surprised that the second chossid's state of mind permitted him to notice such a chitzoiniusdik thing.

(My initial interpretation of what the first chossid meant was that the second chossid should've been thinking about Chassidus, even while walking on Nevsky Prospekt — or, perhaps, especially when walking there. But now I am thinking he could have also meant to ask: "How can you think about this when the Rebbe is in jail?")

This story reminded me of a well known saying by Anton Chekhov: "A refined person is not someone who pretends not to notice ketchup spilled on white table cloth, but someone who does not notice it."

(The real word he used was "intelligent", with hard "g", i.e., a member of intelligentsia, which means in this context "a refined person", but not only in cultural way, but also in a personal way. In Yiddish, we would say, "a mentch" or "an eidel person". In British English, one could probably say: "a gentleman". But all these words' meanings are slightly different.)

I found it interesting that in the ideals of both cultures, Chassidus and Russian intelligentsia, despite the fact that in many aspects they would be antagonistic to each other, the emphasis nevertheless was on downplaying the physical. But not in a forced way, as a result of meditating at length on "how terrible the physical is". One simply becomes so focused on the spiritual that the importance of the physical fades away.

By "physical" I mean here "chitzoinius", not "parnosso" of either your family or a fellow Jew. Which brings me to another point. All of this is notwithstanding the fact that a Chossid cannot look like a shlepper when walking outside or spill ketchup on his hosts' Shabbos tablecloth. That is the flip-side of Chassidus Chabad — perhaps not completely grasped by some of Chabad's modern elements — that despite the fact that pnimiyus is the ikkar, chitzoinius cannot be ignored when our job is to influence it. To some degree, I suppose, that was the point of the second chossid in the above story.

So, the ultimate goal of a chossid is not to focus on the spiritual or the physical (although first is definitely better than the second), but on his job in this world: to unify the spiritual with the physical. We do not serve "gashmius" or "ruchnius". We serve G-d.

Monday, August 1, 2011


The concept of a caricature is very interesting. By changing the reality or presenting it in a more grotesque view, one is exposing the aspect of the reality that would otherwise be unseen from a more "realistic" picture or photograph.

A few caricatures of the politicians from Russian caricaturist, Denis Lopatin.

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara:

American version of the above:

Russian President Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister and ex- and future President, Putin:

Leaders of post-revolutionary Russia (the titles say: "bald-hairy-bald-hairy-bald-hairy"... the leaders are: Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, Medvedev, Putin, Medvedev, Putin, Medvedev):

Putin and Medvedev, again:

Two socialists and a Churchill:

Dennis himself: