Patterns in static

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04 December 03. Left out in the cold

So I was up for a while reading The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, which is about how Russia has historically been big on colonizing the ends of Siberia, especially under the communist system, when cost was no constraint on the Great Struggle. This is a problem here in the modern day, because living in the coldest places on Earth is expensive: people get sick and die; under -15 degrees Celsius (on the Farenheit scale: cooooold), some types of steel will break.

Much of the project of colonizing the East was via prisoners who couldn't leave. One effort to get people out there voluntarily failed miserably: Birobidzhan was to be a ``Soviet Zion'', a homeland for the Jews within the USSR, where they could enjoy the privelege of not being persecuted. Here's the record [all this plagiarized from the above book]:
1928: 950 arrived, 600 left
1929: 1,857 arrived, 1,125 left
1930: 2,560 arrived, 1,000 left
1931: 3,250 arrived, 735 left
1932-3: 11,000 arrived, 8,000 left
In summary: cold sucks. This is all a modern problem, because you now have these giant cities which are fundamentally a bad idea. Further, just as we in the USA have immigration restrictions internationally, the Russians have a system, propiska, of internal migration restrictions. You're a citizen of your city, and if you want to visit Moscow, you'll need a visa. The restrictions have been especially tight in the last few years because of (can you guess!?) terrorism issues. Under the claim that it makes Moscow safer, it's become yet harder to leave Irkutsk. Economic inefficiency and human misery ensue.

But I've already had that rant, so you can fill in the blanks. No, instead, my rant for the day is about Albuterol. See, I was reading this book about the cold in my brick house, whose floor isn't quite as well attached to the wall as one would hope, so it's pretty darn cold if I don't run the oven all night. Thinking I'd be somehow safer, I turned off the oven to sleep, and then my lungs sorta stopped working.

Oh, look: it's snowing out there.

A pal of mine in med school tells me that lungs are nothing like the schematic you see in textbooks. They're more like two slabs of blood-imbued tofu (after draining, freezing and thawing the tofu---try it!). Under normal conditions, they expand and contract normally, these slabs of tofu, but when it gets cold, my slabs become distressed. My mother ran a day-care center from her house before I started school, so you think I'd be better off, but I've always had this problem.

I also have pretty harsh allergies. I went to the U of Chicago hospital, nose streaming snot, eyes twice their normal size and bright red, just like it is every autumn, begging for medication, and they told me, `Oh, this could be any of a number of things. Let's run a blood test.' A week later, the blood test came back and established that I was incredibly allergic to pollen, like I told them I was, and I got my prescription.

Similarly, every time I came in complaining of lung problems, the doctor would tell me, `oh, take your frigging allergy medication.' And I would, and I still wouldn't be able to breathe. After about four years like this, I demanded to see a pulmonologist, who, after about twenty minutes, gave me an inhaler of Albuterol. I took a puff and my problems were completely solved.

A few weeks later, I needed a refill on my allergy medication, and called the Caltech Health Center. They wouldn't give it to me, figuring that I wasn't really allergic to anything, it was just those lung problems I'd complained of last time. Seeing red in a new and different way, I brought in my blood test results, got my prescription, and never went back there.

My impression regarding drug prescription is that 80 percent of the time, it's a no-brainer. Doctors go to school for years in preparation for that other 20 per cent. This makes for doctors who feel a desparate need to demonstrate some sort of intelligence in all cases, and who therefore characterize most drugs as more dangerous than they are; and for massive inefficiency in 80 percent of the cases.

The Spaniards have a nice system: I walked in to the pharmacy one day and told them I had the flu, they looked at me for a second or so and, using their two years or so of training in pharmacology, established that I definitely have the flu, and gave me a strip of antibiotics. Oh, what could be easier.

Some drugs are definitely more complex than others. Some drugs have weird interactions, and antibiotics have that `the more you take the less they work' characteristic. Meanwhile, Albuterol is easy. If you can't breathe, you probably need it. If you can, you're not going to bother with it. There are no Albuterol junkies. It doesn't really interact with much of anything. Its main side effect is a stimulant effect, which is a little less powerful than a can of cola---and thus the endless chatter on the box about heart issues. [Why aren't there medical warning about heart conditions on cola cans?] If I had to point to one drug that is not worth regulating, it'd be Albuterol.

So, that said, how do people deal with Albuterol in the real world? Me, I have two canisters left, and then, as they say in the medical literature, I'm dead tofu, since I don't have a prescription to obtain more, and it'd therefore be wholeheartedly illegal for me to obtain some. One day, Brandon Kivi, 15, gave his girlfriend a puff from his, since she forgot hers and couldn't breathe, and the school nurse handed him in for distributing drugs on school property. He was expelled from school, but the third degree felony charges were dropped. All this because his girlfriend was getting no oxygen to her brain and could have died if he didn't act; in her own words: "I still think he did the right thing 'cause he was just doing good and he did the right thing." Oh, I can't find links, but a kid or two have actually died because their inhaler was kept at the nurse's office.

I was really hoping this one'd go to the Supreme Court, who would maybe re-evaluate the evil that is our current drug-dispensing system. There's a strong incentive for many groups to keep drugs as mystical and incredibly dangerous potions which only a few can comprehend well enough to administer. Blurring the distinction between illicit drugs like crack and decidedly useful drugs like Albuterol (they're both stimulants!) further makes the situation seem more precarious than it is. No, drugs shouldn't all be OTC, but a system like the Spanish, where somebody with a few years of education and a modicum of common sense dispenses drugs to you, would be orders of magnitude cheaper and as safe for all but the most exceptional cases (who will probably find their way to a plain old doctor anyway). As long as we keep this up, people will die from lack of medicines which it's a no-brainer that they should have had, and society will continue to collectively suffer. Next time you get a paycheck and there's a giant social security deduction on there, you can think to yourself, `well, at least nobody will get Albuterol or insulin unless they actually need it.'

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22 December 03. Conclusions about Israel (or lack thereof)

The debate, as currently framed, is about the Right of Return. We have a large number of people who are in the West Bank and Gaza whose parents and grandparents lived in what is now Israel. They are barred from citizenship and have difficulty entering. So today's essay is about migration law again, and asks the moral question, what should the law be? I'll also discuss the government of the PA [Palestinian Authority].

Caveat: although a positive number of people who are not me refer to me as a `migration scholar', the following is basically an opinion piece. There's no math, just commentary on the moral defensibility of the components of both sides' arguments.

Immigration The immigration question divides into two subparts: restrictions on entry (based on security concerns) and restrictions on citizenship (based on political issues). But first, a few subtopics:

Pre-foundation arguments The territory in question had a Jewish majority when 1948 rolled aroud because of mass migration up to then, in which Jews from N Africa and Eastern Europe started moving in to what were once minority Jewish territories. The A-bias side concludes that this means that it's not really Jewish territory, and shouldn't be a Jewish state.

This is an entirely indefensible argument. The `character' of places change all the time, and to claim that the old character is inherently superior is the definition of xenophobia. E.g., California has gone from primarily Indian character to Spanish character to Anglo character to an increasingly Hispanic and Asian character. With every switch, the old stock complained about the new stock, even though the old stock was the new stock a generation or two before. Hispanics in the Southwest aren't even a new stock—they're a mix of the pre-Anglo Indian and Spanish stocks.

An immediate corrolary is that Israelis' arguments about maintaining Israel's `Jewish character' are equally indefensible [save for one caveat below]. It's a prime example of the invalidity and inconsistencies of these old stock/new stock arguments that one side insists on defending the Jewish character of the place today and ignoring the Arab character it had in the 1800s; while the other side harks over and over again to the Arab character the place had before the Jews moved in, while making catty comments about current attempts to preserve the current Jewish caracter.

So both sides make arguments about what the nation state on top of the land that is now called Israel should be, based upon calculations from basic principles. If anybody ever makes an argument of this sort, I suggest you take pains to ignore them, lest you start becoming dumber by association.

Israelis are racists. Having spent the entirety of the last column explaining that Middle Eastern Arabs are racists, I should point out that Jews are racists too. I remember my mother teaching me that the Hebrew phrase for shoddy craftsmanship literally translates to `Arab work', though she'd been in the States long enough to discuss it all from a third person perspective. The support of migration restrictions against Arabs still has roots in the same xenophobia that all the world's migration restrictions have.

Security concerns So Arabs are harassed at the border of Israel, just as they're harassed at the US border, because people think that they're going to enter the country to kill somebody. Before saying anything about this argument, it should be clear to you that the probability of this being true is significantly higher for Israel than for the USA. Although we have an example of people crossing the border with the sole intent of hurting Americans in September, 2001, it happens all the time in Israel. One side says it's every few months, and the other side says it's daily.

Given the problem of kids throwing rocks at Israelis, the simple solution is to just get rid of all the rocks in the region, perhaps replacing them with Nerf rocks. Similarly, the solution to people crossing the border and attacking Israelis is of course to just not let anybody cross the border.

Maintaining Jewish Character Unlike residents of the District of Columbia, Arab citizens of Israel can select a representative to vote for them in their congress (The Knesset). There are Arab members of the Knesset, probably elected by Arab citizens of Israel. Further, the Knesset is a favorite among political scientists because it gives minorities a lot of power: if party A is 49% of the vote and says Yes, party B is 49% of the vote and says No, and party C is 2% of the vote, then party C will decide the outcome. Things like this happen all the time in the Knesset. So Arabs do indeed have representation, and their elected representatives do from time to time call for, um, continued resistance against Israel (J-bias).

So what if the Right of Return were fully implemented, and everyone who could argue that their grandfather lived in Israel in 1947 could enter Israel and participate fully in elections? Then Israel would be democratically dissolved within an election or two, by people who unambiguously hate Jews. It's a counterfactual; we can't predict what would happen in this case, but I expect this would only open the door for the sort of persecution Jews had fled to Israel to avoid. As much as I'd like to subscribe to the Fluffy Bunny school of politics, which says that Middle Eastern Arabs will suddenly become really nice to Jews as soon as the Israeli government is dissolved and all the hate they'd learned as kids (J-bias; #3, 6, & 9 are my faves.) would evaporate, there's not much evidence that this'd happen.

Arguments for full franchise are the usual ones: border checks halt a lot of innocent people; if one is working in a country, one should have a say in governmental decisions which affects him/her; all restrictions of freedom of movement are suspect. These arguments all advocate for a liberalization of restrictions of Arabs entering Israel, and, unlike arguments about the Ottoman Empire, are valid and relevant. They're not getting much space in this essay only because there's nothing special about these arguments in the context of Israel, and I don't think they're particularly controversial [and also because I've blogged about them enough in the U.S. context].

The parts which are specific to the Israeli situation are those from the last two essays. Israel is the product of centuries of indifferent anti-Jew sentiment the world over, and is delightful because it shows that the world actually learned from history, setting up a safeguard to keep the parts of the past we don't want repeating from repeating. But with a concentration of Jews in one place, we have a concentration of hatred, and Israel is surrounded by people who avowedly do not want it to exist, many of whom would like to see the 5.1 million Jews in Israel exterminated.

To conclude this section: yes, the migration restrictions between the PA and Israel are racist, and often hurt people. They are also an attempt to balance the fact a majority of the population next door is openly hostile to the country it's visiting, and seeks its dissolution. A good migration policy would balance everything in the `arguments for full franchise' section with the knowledge that there is such a massive desire among people outside Israel to wipe it off the map, and would do so without racism.

Governing the PA Here are more basic principles for you:

An asshole government is still better than no government at all. This is a bit misleading: there is no such thing as no government, since if an area suddenly becomes a governmental vacuum, new governing bodies immediately get sucked into existence. Usually, we refer to these new goverments as a `mafia', but sometimes prefer other terms such as `militia' or `despot'. We in the USA spent all of grade school learning about how the government of the USA, a really good government as governments go, spontaneously formed after the Brits were ejected. We get from this that the same can easily happen elsewhere, but we have many an example where an asshole government dissolved and a benevolent government failed to spontaneously form. The expectations behind the invasion of Iraq show how deeply ingrained this particular myth is among certain segments of the USA's population, and how wrong its application can be.

Returning to the context here, the West Bank and Gaza have not had an independent government since the Ottoman Empire. Israel is the current administrator of the Palestinian Authority, whether we like that or not. For the well being of the residents of the PA, Israel should not just withdraw its forces one morning, because doing so would leave a power vacuum which will suck up assorted armed individuals to form the replacement government. [This applies to the USA in Iraq too: regardless of whether we like US troops there, if they just up and left one morning, it'd be a disaster.] Instead, Israel needs to assist in establishing a government.

`But it's not a power vacuum,' you retort, `it's got the PA.' Unfortunately, the PA is too weak a government to fend for itself. There are opposition groups, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which would rather govern than the PA. The PA has no tax base, since Israel is the only frigging viable economy for a country mile. [As evidenced here.]

The next principle gives another reason why the PA has little legitimacy:

Ariel Sharon is an asshole. I do not think that it is the consensus opinion among Israelis that all Arabs are evil and should be killed. But I'm not so sure about what's going on in Ariel Sharon's head. Unfortunately, he's the president of the frigging country. On the other side is Yasser Arafat, also an ass, who has built his career on the dissolution of Israel. No reading between the lines here, that's what his PLO was explicitly founded on. Here's the PLO's charter, (A-bias document, J-bias source) and here's Article 19 from that charter: "The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel are entirely illegal[...]".

Sharon and Arafat have made a half-century career of trying to hurt each other, and now they both have a government. Sharon has the upper hand here—his government gives money to Arafat's government—and not surprisingly, Sharon has used this to try to score a final victory against his long-time nemesis. There aren't words to express my frustration.

The goals of the new government: If Israel grants a truly autonomous, democratic government to the PA, then that government will be oriented toward destroying Israel. The Oslo accord [here's a copy (A-bias source)] converted the PLO into the government of the PA; maintaining continuity between the PLO and the PA government is Mr. Arafat, who hasn't shown much of an about-face since the decades when he built a career out of fomenting hatred toward Israel.

And, as I like to think I proved in the last essay, the consensus view among the residents of the PA is that Israel should be destroyed, by diplomacy or by force.

So Israel has the responsibility of establishing a government which, when independent, will have as its core a desire to dissolve Israel, held by both its leaders and its constituents. You can see why Israel's representatives aren't so enthusiastic about the task.

Conclusion I'll stop there, without actually telling you what I think should be done (because I don't particularly know). But hopefully I've laid out the axes by which to measure events or proposals you read about in the news: there's the racism axis, wherein Jews hate Arabs; there's the preservation of the existence of Israel axis, wherein the rest of the world has shown a history of willingness to persecute Jews or to passively allow others to persecute them, and there's not all that much evidence of that disappearing; there's the Arabs lobbying for the dissolution of Israel axis, wherein Middle Eastern Arabic culture has a strong anti-Israel and anti-Jew flavor, and many (if not most) do not shy away from condoning violence toward Jews.

I remember Mr. Sally, my Analysis professor, getting extremely enthusiastic about calculating bounds on the volume of a certain sphere. See, the problem was that direct calculation was impossible, and the answer wasn't an exreme solution like zero or one, so you had to construct all sorts of ad hoc scaffolding to find boundaries somewhere in the middle. He loved it. The answer was somewhere between zero and one, and you had to grope around to find exactly where it was, and he revelled in it.

The rest of us are often not so comfortable when we don't have a boundary to lean against. We can't even assume symmetry and just split everything down the middle. In a situation where it is entirely impossible to ignore race, we Americans often get deer-in-the-headlights confused, because our quick 'n' easy response that all laws should be ethnicity-blind just don't apply. I emphatically do not care who started it, but Middle Eastern Arabs hate Jews, and that will not go away in the near future, even if we could train all Jews to stop hating Arabs (which is also not going to happen). As distasteful as considering race when writing policy may be, for Israel's leaders to ignore the fact that so many Middle Eastern Arabs hate Jews so passionately would be literally suicidal.

Many proposed changes which are aimed at a more egalitarian treatment of Arabs will score well on the minimizing racism axis, but badly on the preserving Israel axis, because there is such a strong consensus among Arabs that Israel should be destroyed. On the other hand, ideas which take care of the Arabs trying to kill Jews axis are invariably intermixed with a shift in the wrong direction on the Jews' racism toward Arabs axis. There is simply no policy which will give zero reign to Jewish racism, will ensure full security from Arab efforts to destroy Israel, and which will preserve Israel as a haven of no persecution against Jews. The optimum is somewhere in the middle; I wish I knew where.

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on Sunday, August 19th, michael reinhard said


I enjoyed your essay. I am unclear though. At one point you argue that Israeli restrictions on Arab immigration are racist and at another you seem to argue they are perfectly reasonable, given that the Arabs, if allowed to immigrate freely, would quickly bring the Jewish state to an end. Is it racist to oppose the effective destruction of your own state?

on Wednesday, November 5th, fearsome said

Okay I hate jews to the core. no matter how inhumane it would be, if I get to kill around 6 million Jews of Israel -its entire population, the problem would be effectively resolved. Because the world will wake up to the calamity and say 'see things have happened. lets move ahead. make peace forget the agreived. that happened in 1948. That can happen again

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06 November 04. May I please be excused from the Holy War?

I actually have some limited sympathy toward proselytizers. I mean, if you really think you're correct, then you'll want to tell your friends all about it. E.g., I have a pal who really feels that yoga has made her life better, and so she has put great effort into informing others about yoga.

I think I may have had a hand in it: I was babbling about myself, pontificating aloud about how I add value to the world, and she is silent through it all, and then when I pause for a second she says `I guess I add value by showing people yoga', and since then she seems to have gotten much more in to doing so. Because, to a great extent, adding value for others is a basic human desire---one which is often overridden by more self-serving desires, but which exists nonetheless.

So I can basically understand those who want the U.S. Government to be an arm of their preferred religion. The religion makes them happy, and they want to spread that far and wide. From their perspective, it adds value.

Of course, the basic flaw of it all is: you could be wrong. It could be that what worked great for you won't work for others, or you could be wrong at a still deeper level. The reasonable solution for most is informational proselytizing: tell people about yoga, or rennet in cheese, or hand them a copy of the Bible, and let them process the information themselves. But for emotional and spiritual experiences which have nothing to do with processing facts, this doesn't feel like enough. People just aren't going to understand what yoga's about until they're able to do a decent downward-facing dog, so talking without making the subject do it doesn't feel like enough.

Of course, it only gets worse for the proselytizing religions, which have both the `you don't understand until you've been in church every Sunday for a few years' quality, and explicit commandments to either convert people who aren't in your religion or kill them. As above, I can sort of understand where these guys are coming from, but at the same time (and I am evidently in agreement with about a hundred million people here) I want them to get the fuck away from my government. Although they believe that they are imposing a positive externality upon me, it's actually really sucking for me over here.

Which brings us back to the big flaw above, that they could be wrong. The huge problem which simultaneously appeared on the RADAR screen of every citizen of an urban center the evening of 2 November, is that there are people out there who will not rest until the rest of us are converted to their religion, and they are not at all dark-skinned, and in fact could use some sun.

If this were a coherent essay, this would be the solution section, but I've got nothing to offer you. What do you do when a hundred million people all think that you should be a Christian, and are willing to take steps to push that along? What do you do when those people are fully cognizant that there are people on the other side of the globe who all think that you should be a Muslim, and are willing to take opposing steps to push that along too? How do you keep out of the crossfire? Please leave solutions in the comment box below.

An aside Boy, I (heart) being a Jew more than ever. It is the only one of the Big Three that is wholly non-proselytizing. This comes from the fact that it's a magical blend of ethnicity and religion, and ya can't convert people to your ethnicity. Many think that this turns into elitism, or even conspiratorialism, and it is probably the source of some quantity of anti-Jew sentiment. [The Christian proselytizers, for their part, have a love and hate relationship with us Jew-folk.]

But in terms of ethics, non-Jews should be delighted that Jew folk take the ethical commandments of the Bible to be aimed only at them. In fact, Hebrew is strongly gendered, and many take the masculine forms to mean that the commandments aren't even aimed at women. Taken with this narrow interpretation, the Bible doesn't say a thing about how people who aren't Jewish males should live their lives. Is it a sin for non-Jews to kill or covet their neighbor's goat or commit onanism? Who knows---there's nothing in the Bible either way. Can orthodox women be lesbians? Why not? If non-Jews want to eat pork and light fires on Saturday, that's fine. We'll just sit here in the dark.

I certainly don't speak for all Jew folk, but for the most part Jews just don't push their laws on people. [The only subset of truly proselytizing Jews I know of are the New York Lubovichers, which are kind of embarassing to the rest of us Jews. Of course, non-Jews can't convert, but they can become `Sons of Noah' who assist the Jews in their quest to right the world. You've gotta have really low self-esteem to buy in to that group.] Imagine if they did: there'd be an anti-pork lobby, laws that people can't drive on Saturdays, and fasting imposed on certain days of the year. Of course, you'd be legally obligated to get drunk on Purim, and police would fine you if you didn't.

But this doesn't happen. Even in Israel, it's legal to sell pork, although practical considerations prevent almost all stores from carrying it. Typically, what demands Jew folk do make are about facilitation, like making sure that restaurants they go to serve something that isn't pork fried, and that they can get a day off from work on days of fasting. But this is still not proselytizing, just trying to get along.

There's a delicate line between proselytizing, which people hate, and being exclusive, which people also hate. Maybe there's no line at all, and a group which makes zero effort to recruit can be taken as implicitly exclusive. Add in a few obscure rituals, and exclusivity can even become the above-mentioned suspected elitism and conspiratorialism. So a group's options are to not recruit and thus be eyed with suspicion, or to proselytize and thus be annoying to everybody else, and I'm not sure if any middle ground exists between the two that won't be taken as a threat by outsiders. Maybe there's just no way to opt out of a holy war.

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on Monday, November 8th, zzzzzoe said

I've always been fascinated by the friendship between my mum and a woman, Bobbie, she met maybe fifteen years ago when we were living in DC - their relationship is a paragon of amicable detente between strongly opposing beliefs. My mum is a complete atheist pragmatist, former genetic biologist, believes in abortion, euthanasia; she's even (if you get her to admit it when she's tipsy) sympathetic towards some kinds of eugenics. Bobbie is a fundamentalist born-again Christian - subscribes to all the Christian newspapers instead of the Washington Post, usually hosting two or three missionaries in her house, didn't let my mum and her boyfriend sleep in the same room before they were married when they came to visit. Apparently Bobbie has decided that even if my mum converts to Christianity on her deathbed, she'll still go to heaven since she is such a good person, and my mum has convinced her that there's absolutely no use proselytizing. When my mum comes to visit Bobbie she sits politely through grace at the beginning of meals, and sleeps in when the family goes to church on Sunday, and then the two women laugh about their children and their mutual friends and their pets and cooking and generally have a fantastic time. And sometimes I think the world maybe makes this problem out to be a bigger deal than it really has to be. No, you can't come up with a hard and fast rule for applying proselytization or not in a given situation, but from the perspective of the proselytizer, I think that you do always have a reliable instinct for whether your audience is receptive or not - and if they're not, and your goal is getting them to actually believe something as opposed to forcing them to perform a particular action, the best thing you can do is provide a positive living example (which I think has been Bobbie's chosen strategy.) If two good people are dealing with each other, there does seem to be some kind of deep human moral core that allows you to interact no matter how different your beliefs are. As for two people who are not good - Dear heavens, I have no idea.

on Monday, December 13th, Aaron said


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04 October 06. DJ Spinoza

[PDF version]

I used to have arguments with some economists about how one would model people of limited rationality. The economists in question assumed that because you can't work out what somebody smarter than you is thinking (otherwise you'd be that smart), your mental model of other people's minds must be that they're either as smart as you or less so. If I can think forward three moves in Chess, I must assume that everybody else thinks ahead three or fewer moves. But this is often not the case: Kasparov can play against Deep Blue, and he knows that Deep Blue is looking further ahead.

But the question of what Kasparov is thinking remains. He is not just assuming that Deep Blue is exactly as smart as he is, but has to take some sort of action knowing that he doesn't know enough. If I were Kasparov, and I'm guessing that you're with me on this to some extent, I'd just put Deep Blue out of my head and try to play the best darn Chess game I can. Anyway, there's no point guessing what Deep Blue is thinking because a computer doesn't really think in any human sense of the term.

On to Theology
My premise for all theological questions is this: we are dumb.

Our senses are crappy, our brains are in some ways impressive but easily screw up when adding a column of numbers, and as a collective we can barely get bond referenda passed. And with these string-and-duct-tape tools, we're supposed to develop an understanding of the motivations and underlying machinery of our existence and our surroundings.

Premise D (we are dumb) takes seriously the standard claim that the average theologian gives about how ” is infinite and incomprehensible. To some extent, this is axiomatic--no, wait, it isn't. Baruch Spinoza derived it from other axioms over several steps in his Ethics. The most famous snippet from the Ethics is a proof that, for appropriate definitions of God and Nature, God and Nature are identical.

Baruch basically cut to the chase on the Socratic approach. Socrates was famous for asking people to motivate their motivations. E.g., “You're a baker? Why? You like giving people good food, why? Why do you like to see other people happy?” The other party would eventually break down into confessing that he or she has no idea what their underlying motivations are, and the whole thing was eventually resolved by putting Socrates to death. Spinoza's treatise skipped the endless questions and posited that there is something that is the fundamental cause of all things, which itself has no prior cause. Let this fundamental cause be represented by the term God.

The trouble with infinite and incomprehensible
So if this God substance is infinite and incomprehensible, and by Spinoza's definition can not be explained via other elements, then it's basically impossible for losers like us to understand His/Her/Its internal motivations.

The easy course is to posit that there's some Guy who has created us all, whom we look like, and who is generally like we are, but generally wiser. The same people who say that their deity is incomprehensible and infinite are happy to put a face and a beard and simple human motivations on the guy. Taking a line from Spinoza's Ethics, “[...] those who confuse the two natures, divine and human, readily attribute human passions to the deity [...]”

The White Beard story is an attempt to get around the premise that we have cognitive abilities on a too-piddling scale to get any of this. By positing a deity who is just like we are but cooler, we can apply all of our quotidian reasoning. We can take the standard story (bad person does bad things, good person does good things, events happen, and in the end bad person is punished and good person rewarded) and apply it on the cosmic scale to grand questions of the human condition and such. It's really easy, but it throws out infinite and incomprehensible, and flies in the face of Premise D.

The basis of the White Beard story is Genesis 1:27, about how man was made in His image, which by the most literal interpretation possible means that the eternal creator of the universe has arms, legs, lungs that breathe sea-level air, et cetera. Maimonides takes this non-literally to mean that Man has an intellect that can conceive of things and then build them; others similarly take verse 27 to indicate that there are divine characteristics that Man has that dirt and trees don't have.[Spinoza, for his part, will have none of it: “For intellect and will, which should constitute the essence of God, ...would have nothing in common with [the human intellect and will] but the name; there would be about as much correspondence between the two as there is between the Dog, the heavenly constellation, and a dog, an animal that barks.”]

Frankly, HP Lovecraft probably did a better job of picturing the infinite and incomprehensible than the the best of the White Beard storytellers. Lovecraft's monsters were gigantic, barely describable in human terms, had absolutely no motivation that the narrators could work out, and made the trees sway without wind.

Atheism? Also ignores Premise D, but in a different way, saying `I can't imagine anything on a theological scale beyond the White Beard stories, so I'll assume away the problem by stating with confidence that there's nothing there.' It's like Kasparov insisting that, since he can't prove anything about his opponent, the pieces must be moving of their own accord.

No, Premise D does not imply Nihilism, nor does it imply Agnosticism. Nihilism would say `I know there is nothing beyond what I see', which I take as overconfident; Agnosticism would say `I don't know', which I take as underconfident. Here, I am saying `I am absolutely certain that I have no clue'.

My position raises the hard questions that Nihilism, Atheism, and company all raise: if there's no Guy With White Beard telling you what to do, how do you develop your ethics? How do I draw a chain from the substance that has no predecessor and motivates all else to what I should have for lunch?

Nobody takes the approach of having no ethics at all. Even Objectivists have certain principles of what is Good. Some take a minimal-regret approach--Pascal's wager, presuming that you may as well behave as if the White Beard story is true, because there's some chance that it really is. Nobody takes this to its logical extreme, which would be to simultaneously subscribe to multiple, contradictory religions, just in case it's not Jehovah, but Oshun or Vishnu that wins you the jackpot. My own approach has been more along the intersection of the various religions of the world, which all have a few principles of trying to be nice to each other, and leaving it at that. This is frankly as much a cop-out as any other approach.

We find failures of Premise D among many of the world's leaders, for millennia. It is almost requisite. Any leader has to convince his/her/its followers that the leader knows more, is wiser, or is otherwise more capable than the followers--and no better way to do that than to claim that you've got a hot-line to the Heavens. This is nothing new to you, and you are well-aware that all of human history including the present is filled with people who claimed to have found a loophole in Premise D who then beat up on other people who made the same claim.

As you are no doubt aware, Spinoza's writings produced all sorts of annoyance among the powers-that-be, and led to Spinoza's excommunication. [See Wikipedia.] But hey, he did better than Socrates did when he called people out on their ignorance and the arbitrary nature of their social and private existence. The lesson from these lives is that the harshest possible critique is not `you are wrong' but `there is no right answer.'

Relevant previous entries:
The one about how Jewish theology generally does better with Premise D than most
The one about the never-ending Christian-Muslim war
The one about how academics handle uncertainty (and businessmen don't)

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on Thursday, October 5th, Miss ALS of San Diego said

An excellent post.

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21 November 06. Is IBM evil?

[PDF version]

In the 1940s, a number of IBM's subsidiaries assisted the Nazi government in implementing the logistics of the Holocaust, to some extent being entrepreneurs who originated some of the ideas that made the whole thing possible. For example, every serial number tattooed to a victim's arm corresponded to a punchcard manufactured and processed by IBM. The involvement is so well documented that even IBM doesn't deny it. When Edwin Black organized the facts and wrote the story for the lay-reader in a book entitled IBM and the Holocaust (Black, 2001)

(BUY!), , IBM's official response was to play down the book by pointing out that it didn't say anything that a host of historians didn't already know.

But what does this piece of history say about the IBM of today? By way of discussion, and for the sake of not sounding like a crackpot (always a hazard when talking about the Holocaust), I offer a few social science approaches to the Holocaust before returning to the question of what IBM (and you) should do today.

Game theory
Game Theory begins with a situation in which people have an abundance of actions they could take, but those actions depend on the actions other people choose. John Nash proved that given a few simple technical conditions, there are always equilibria, wherein everybody implicitly agrees to behave in a certain manner and is OK with that behavior. This is why he won a Nobel prize and has books and movies about his life.

The problem with Nash equilibria is that there are often many of them. One or the other may be more likely, but before the fact, they're all possible. For example, everybody in England chooses to drive on the left, whereas in most other countries the equilibrium given the same situation is for everybody to drive on the right. Why'd it happen one way or another? Historians who have studied the question can amalgamate all the random events into some compelling stories, but here's my own summary: it's basically arbitrary.

If we had asked people in the Germany of 1935 whether they would assist in mass killings, all but a handful would have said no; yet in the Germany of 1945 we found enough Germans who said yes that mass killings were efficiently and extensively conducted. Why'd Germany as a country choose this approach to getting out of the depression when other countries just chose to have people build extraneous public works? Why'd the society switch from a peaceful equilibrium to a violent one? Many thousands of pages have been written on the subject, the basic conclusion of which is: it's basically arbitrary.

To be literal about Game Theoretic examples, consider Chess. There is nothing inherent to the setup of the game that causes a given outcome. Sometimes white wins, sometimes black wins, depending on what the people playing the game do. Similarly in social situations: sometimes one side prevails, sometimes the other, and we never know which it will be until after the fact, and if we put similar people in a similar situation, the other outcome could easily prevail. Conversely, equilibria which occurred elsewhere in time or space can always crop up again; the best we can do is try to bias things in one direction or another, by taking away black's knight, setting social norms about not killing Jews, or establishing rules explicitly outlawing hate crimes.

What the historians say

Hannah Arendt wrote the seminal book on the question, Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt, 1963). This is the book which coined the phrase `the banality of evil' to describe people like Eichmann, who was a dull bureaucrat who didn't think twice about the implications of his paper shuffling.

The moral (one of many): any organization is capable of evil, because the size of the organization allows an action to be broken down into bite-size, palatable pieces to be farmed out to people who would never approve of the whole. Their individual roles seem trivial and relatively blameless, and just as the officers at Nuremberg claimed that they were “just following orders,” everybody in an organization has somebody else they can point their finger at. Yet the end result is an equilibrium which nobody would have volunteered to bring about.

Ronald Wintrobe, in the final chapter of The Political Economy of Dictatorship (Wintrobe, 1998), extends the story that any individual only makes a marginal contribution by describing the bureaucrats who are entrepreneurs within the system, working hard to have a more-than-marginal influence. They advance in the bureaucracy by taking the initiative and having ideas which will help the organization achieve its goals more effectively. They do not `just follow orders' but take action to help the world along to the evil equilibrium. Wintrobe says Eichmann was a bureaucratic entrepreneur of this sort; Black shows that the heads of IBM's German subsidiary were. Such entrepreneurs always exist, pressing the society to move toward the evil equilibrium, in a manner that creates business or influence for them.

These authors show us the structure of the evil equilibria. There will always be people who are callous to moral considerations and will attempt to shift the organization to their benefit and the detriment of the rest of the world. Then, most of the people who have to take action to bring about a bad outcome can't see the big picture and so have no idea where their actions are leading to. So the protest singers have the right idea: large organizations (IBM, the government) have a comparative advantage in implementing evil equilibria, and we need to maintain especial vigilance over them.

Within this context, the big question is: what can these organizations do to ensure that the organization won't fall into an evil equilibrium, either through manipulation by bureaucratic entrepreneurs or just by wandering into them?

The IBM question
Let's return to present-day IBM, and the question of whether they're evil. Yeah, their laptops are all an evil-looking black; they make a server called The Intimidator; they're a big, blocky bureaucracy like every other big, blocky bureaucracy. But that's mere cosmetic evilness. As should be clear to this point, evil does not hit anybody over the head, and those who say that IBM's German subsidiary didn't know what the Nazi regime was up to are to some extent correct [but see Edwin Black's comments].

But today's IBM chooses to take a simple, insidious course which exacerbates its past: it tries to forget.

In a press release discussing Edwin Black's book, IBM states that it “[...] looks forward to and will fully cooperate with appropriate scholarly assessments of the historical record.” This follows discussion of the logistics of which universities house IBM documents. The message is clear: nobody in Armonk, NY, would be willing to operate a gas chamber, so the matter is a “scholarly” and “historical” question.

If the important moral question were “Should IBM be held accountable and pay reparations that would affect its balance sheet?” then IBM's insistence on averting its collective eyes makes sense-the IBM of today doesn't want to have to pay the debts incurred by the IBM of yesterday. But there is a far more important question: how do we keep such things as genocides or mass internments from ever happening again? This is the question which affects us today, and is the question that IBM can best help to contribute to, and yet seems to go out of its way to avoid.

The above press release was written in February 2001, so IBM didn't know any better, but the follow-up of March 2002 doesn't seem to say anything to change the claim that this is a question for researchers, not the people who head today's organizations and build today's machines. IBM's business conduct guides say nothing about refusing business from parties with suspect intentions or who aim to trample the rights of citizens [as of 2 May 2003]. As far as I could ascertain from their publicly available information and from correspondence with employees, IBM has made no changes that would ensure that its bureaucracy can not re-entangle itself in those past misdeeds which it “categorically condemns.”

From IBM's second press release discussing Edwin Black's book: “A review in The New York Times concluded that the author's `... case is long and heavily documented, and yet he does not demonstrate that I.B.M. bears some unique or decisive responsibility for the evil that was done.'” Here is the full review. I agree with the reviewer: IBM was not unique or decisive.

IBM is the paragon for this essay because their work is dull and doesn't seem related to anything we picture oppression on a mass scale to look like. Also, there is nothing hypothetical about their situation: a subsidiary did provide substantial assistance to Germany's eugenically-oriented goals, and its official statements of today do make an effort to forget that. Yet everything we could say about IBM we could say about any other organization or person: each of us is capable of assisting in evil, there are situations which would tempt any one of us to do so, and all of us are more comfortable just not thinking about it.

Many people with whom I have discussed this topic point out that government-sponsored genocide is unlikely in the USA, so the game is fundamentally different. This would be to see white win a dozen games and to assume that this means black can never win. The game may be biased toward white, but that is by no means a proof of impossibility. Over the lifetimes of our elder citizens, the USA has gone through many periods which we collectively look back on and exclaim, `What were we thinking?' How did Japanese citizens wind up spending years imprisoned in internment camps for no reason? How did McCarthy manage to ruin the lives of hundreds of political enemies? Forty years ago, lynchings weren't prosecuted as crimes. No, this stuff wasn't genocide, but it certainly wasn't OK, either.

Others I have met contend that the situation was much more ambiguous in the 1940s than it is now, and it wasn't so clear-cut that IBM shouldn't have been involved. This is entirely the point. If it happens again, it will be just as not-clear-cut until after the fact, so we must plan for it before it happens.

So ask yourself, given that you have perfect retrospective knowledge of history, what you would have refused to do. Would you have supported and aided in the registration of minorities? If not, then you should not support it now. Would you have accepted that other people around you were being imprisoned without <EM>habeas corpus</EM>? If not, then do not just assume that thing will turn out differently this time around. Would you be comfortable if your boss asked you to work toward ethically suspect activities? Rather than worrying about it if it happens, make sure that your organization has rules in place now to ensure that such a situation can't happen in the future. There will always exist amoral bureaucratic entrepreneurs pushing us toward an evil equilibrium, but we can do a lot to lower the probability that they will succeed.

The game is not different. All of the ingredients of the situation of Germany or the USA in the 1940s are around today: we have bureaucracies, different races and countries, a government, and people. I'm not proclaiming that the sky is falling, and am not predicting genocides. But conversely, many people look at the horrors of the past and see them as something which was committed by monsters who are incomparable to the noble souls who populate the world now. But it was subtle, and if it happens again, it will be subtle again. Some arbitrary sequence of events could push us toward an evil equilibrium just like before, and there are no new safeguards in place. The only difference between now and then is that we have the experience of history, marking red flags along the way. To see those flags and do nothing about them would be, well, evil.

About the author: I wrote this essay on an IBM Thinkpad-one of eight I have owned (mostly Thinkpad 560s and Thinkpad 570s). I recently refused a job interview solicited by a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security.

Relevant previous entries:
The one about the folly of talking about IBM's will at all.


Hannah Arendt.
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Edwin Black.
IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation.
Crown, 2001.

Ronald Wintrobe.
The Political Economy of Dictatorship.
Cambridge University Press, 1998.

title ="Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil",
author = "Hannah Arendt",
year = 1963

author="Edwin Black",
title="IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation",
publisher= "Crown", year=2001

author ="Ronald Wintrobe",
title= "The Political Economy of Dictatorship",
publisher= "Cambridge University Press", year= 1998

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on Saturday, January 1st, Jack said


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22 August 07. My family

[PDF version]

We begin with a necessary disclaimer. This is a family history, not a political broadside. I'm sticking to the facts, as best as I can reconstruct them. If you take this as some sort of commentary on current politics, then I hate you.

I think it is interesting history, however, because it's not often that a new country just pops up one day. I get the impression that some people think that Israel as a Jewish state just appeared one day, by UN decree. In one sense it did, but in another, it formed over the course of a century or so as individual people contributed. Since the members of my family are included among those contributors, my family history, in my mind, is tied to the history of Israel.

My grandmother, aged seven or so, holding a certificate, laurel wreath on her head. The photo is blurry, because history is like that.
Figure One: My grandmother was valedictorian of her 2nd grade class.

My grandmother was born in Botoşani, Romania, as the daughter of Rosa Ashkenaz and Aaron Cordova (a German). There are two main streams of Judaism: Ashkenazi and Sehpardic, where the Ashkenazi were primarily found in Eastern Europe, and the Sephardic in Spain and North Africa. Noting that Cordova is a town in Southern Spain, we see that this was a marriage of the two traditions.

It was an orthodox household in an orthodox community. This list of Jewish Cemetaries (which seems to be trying to cite its sources and get things right) has this to say about the town:

The current population is 5,000-25,000 with no Jews. The Census from 1839 registered 150 Jewish families. The 1899 Census registered 630 Jewish inhabitants. The 1930 Census registered 1884 Jewish inhabitants. The Jewish Community was founded in 1837 by an agreement with the owner Teodor Balus. On 1 July 1940, many Jews were massacred. Between June and July 1944, many Jewish families were deported in Oltenia.

A coin with a hole in the middle. Across theit says Palestine in
English, at lower left the same in Hebrew, and at lower right the same
in Arabic. It is dated 1927.
Figure Two:This is a 10 mil piece. I have no idea what that means. close-up view

She left around 1930 (don't recall the exact date), to the British protectorate that was called Palestine. The coin pictured here was in my grandmother's collection, along with the cute little tokens Israeli payphones used to run on and other such oddities. You can see that it is in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. The Hebrew in parens (at about 7 o'clock in the picture) is an acronym for what the Jew folk like to call this plot of land (Israel), so the conflict of naming is already beginning to show, though the Brits are showing their clear preference. The choice of Palestine, I am told, derives from the British fetish for all things Roman. Millenia ago, the Romans had renamed the territory from Judea to a variant on Palestine. The term also lives on in conversational English in another variant form, philistine. Once again, if you think this bit of etymology from the late 1800s has any relevance to modern politics, you've got issues. But ain't it interesting?

Romanian sentiment toward Jews is famously bad. Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, explained that when the Nazis came to train Romanians about how to properly persecute a Jew, the Nazi representatives were horrified by how inhumanely Romanian Jews were treated. As my grandmother tells it, the Romanians kept telling her to go back to Palestine, so she did. There, she was able to continue life as an observant Jew primarily in the Ashkenasi tradition, while others in her family were able to do the same in the Sephardic tradition. Her brother had already arrived, and as shown by the stats above, by the end of WWII everybody in the family had gone separate ways, to New York, Palestine, or, in one case, a gas chamber.

I asked her what she thought of the British protectorate, and she said “the Brits were brutes.” She cited one example that she witnessed where the British police allowed hundreds of immigrants arriving via sea to drown rather than let them onto shore.

My grandfather, trying to look valiant, mounted on a horse, waving his hat.
Figure Three: My grandfather, trying to look valiant. Nobody is quite sure what to call the ground his horse is standing on.

My grandfather was born either in Bulgaria, just before the family went to Palestine, or in Cypress, en route; my mother is unsure. They met and married before Israel existed, and eventually settled in a little apartment in Haifa. The current edition of Wikipedia lists Haifa's population in 1922 as 24,600, which is a small town by any measure; e.g., Washington, D.C. is 22 times larger, at 550,000 people (without suburbs). So their apartment was in a little, sparsely-populated seaport at the edge of a great big desert. My grandfather lived in that same apartment until he died about a decade ago; my grandmother lives there now. When my mother described the place as she remembered it, she doesn't paint a very pretty picture, and I only picture it as worse fifty years later.

So a few more years pass. My aunt was born three years before the official founding of Israel, my mother three years after.

I'm not entirely clear on their involvement in the many wars that Israel the country has fought. During the War of Attrition with Egypt, mother was stuck watching radar screens near the Sinai Desert, since women in the military get trained in combat but are kept off the front lines.

Meanwhile, my father was born in Prague, Bohemia, Czechloslovakia. I've only met him briefly, but he says that his father, a doctor, was somewhat acquainted with Bertrand Russel, and a letter from Russel allowed the family to leave the country and go to Israel, where he mostly grew up.

A photo of my mother in the military. She was hot.
Figure Four: Comments about how my mom was hot when she was in the military will be summarily deleted.

One nice thing about the Israeli military: it is a meat market. It's a little more busy now, but in the past it's just been thousands of 17-year old boys and girls with nothing to do but work out and flirt with each other. So, my parents met, my brother was born, and I was born a little later (in Australia, because, uh, why not).

Meanwhile, my aunt moved to the United States, after meeting the well-to-do owner of a condom factory, who whisked her away and married her. Since this was the 1970s and the USA still liked immigrants--more in the next entry--it was easy for my infant self to wind up in the USA as well. My aunt had a son, who married a woman from Ohio, and they had two kids who self-identify as Catholic.

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on Tuesday, August 28th, d said

Narcissist!! She looks like you in that photo!

on Monday, September 10th, Miss ALS from San Diego said

i can't believe how similar your mom and bro look...i mean, he only got HALF of her DNA, right?


nice little history.

on Monday, October 10th, Hillel Ori said

Dear Eric.

I am searching for a good image of 10 mil coin, for an article in the Jewish history magazine 'Segula'. May I use the nice image in this page?
I will be happy to mention your name in the credit line.

I will appreciate a quick answer.

By the way, this is a coin from the British Mandate Perion in the holy land. The major coin was a Pound, that was same as the british Pound. There were 1000 Mils in a Pound. More information can be found in the article at Segula Magazine, soon in English.

All the goods in advance,
Hillel Ori
Segula Magazine

on Tuesday, October 11th, the author said


Thanks for explaining British Mandate currency. We'll arrange photo details via email.

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