Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Google really is a Search Engine....

...they actually found Carmen Sandiego!

Stay Cool, Oscar...

Oscar Brown Jr. has died at age 78.

From the Washington Post

From the New York Times

I found out from these articles that Oscar Brown Jr was a social activist, but I just knew him as a great musician. I'm not sure how my father discovered him, but my father would play me his songs as a kid, and I loved them.

He could be funny with Signifyin Monkey, The Snake and Stay Cool.
And I don't think any song shows more the love between a parent and child than "Dat Dere".

He even wrote a cool song about the internet, "Cyberspace is the Place" in the early 90s!

But the best thing about his music was the music. I don't know enough about music to describe it, but the rhythm, the beat - simply the best.

Last year my father celebrated his 60th birthday, and in honor of the occasion, my brothers and I put out a book with letters from his friends and family. I also contacted Oscar Brown Jr., who very graciously wrote me back. He sent birthday greetings to my dad (who he didn't know) and even included this poem:

By Oscar Brown, Jr.

Another year
To celebrate
A day held dear
Your natal date
The anniversary
Of your birth
God granted mercy
You're on earth
Another year
Another year
Another year

Another year
A happy day
So we sincerely
Want to say
We hope you do
Have many more
Because with you
We're always for
Another year
Another year
Another year

Another year commands the rest
As up the numbers climb
Another year withstands the test
Of time

Another year
To be alive
To prove that we're
Made to survive
And are still able
Heaven's sake
To say we're grateful
Now to make
Another year
Another year
Another year

Another year
Is being X'd
By the appearance
Of the next
So as it goes
To be a ghost
Let us propose
A birthday toast
Another year
Another year

Another year

I wish I had another year to hear more of Oscar Brown Jr's creations. In the meantime, I'll keep singing them to my kids (they already know Signifyin Monkey by heart).

Thanks, Oscar.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Foreshadowing

This is three years old but still perfect. (And I haven't seen the movie yet.)

Friday, May 27, 2005

My take on Lag B'Omer

I can be a bit of a holiday grinch. I always get nervous about performing the various holiday practices correctly (I guess a combination of my being a baal teshuva and a neurotic perfectionist). But although I sometimes might not enjoy a particular chag, I can certainly identify with the reasons and spirit behind it.

But not Lag B'Omer - at least the way it's celebrated today.

The two main features of Lag B'Omer in Israel today are:

  • Bonfires. While when I was a kid, I enjoyed making campfires, as a parent, I found it somewhat disturbing. There isn't a great deal of concern in general for safety. But what really bothers me is where they get the wood. It's all "gathered" - which either means stolen from building lots or cut from the trees that we all put so much effort in planting. I'm sure some fires are made from dead branches, but with the amount of bonfires in the country, they have to be in the minority.
  • Meron. Meron is the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. People go there to pray. His site, along with other similar places (primarily in the Galil) are popular throughout the year for those who want to pray for financial success, health, marriage, children, etc. I have never been into visiting graves in general, but I have a particular problem with using them as a mechanism to get something. It makes God seem like a jukebox, where if you put the right coin in, you'll get want you want. I'm not a strict Leibowitzian, but this does not seem like the Judaism I believe in.

What do these two aspects have in common? They're both about taking, about what you can "get."

If there is a holiday that I identify with more, that would be the antithesis of a "taking" holiday, it would be Yom HaAtzmaut (or better yet, the two days of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut.) There we celebrate and commemorate both what God gave us (by means of hallel and thanks) and what we have given back (by building the State, and in sad cases even by soldiers giving their lives.) This shows the real convenental relationship between God and his people, and to me it makes much more religious sense.

Often the ideologies of "Religious Zionism", "Modern Orthodoxy" and "Torah V'Avoda" are described as being in the middle of a spectrum of haredim on the one side and chilonim on the other. While that may be true in some cases, here I think that I place my ideology on the side of "giving" and the opposing ideology on the side of "taking". It reminds me of the Mafdal's election slogan in 1999 - HaMafdal Noten HaNeshama L'Medina. (The Mafdal gives its soul to the State.) I think they were trying to distinguish themselves from Shas, by focusing on contributing to the State instead of seeing what you could get from it.

Perhaps Lag B'Omer can be redeemed. I'm not sure how. I know that more focus on Rabbi Akiva, and ahavta l'reiecha kamocha would help, but I don't know how that could compete with the fun of burning everything in sight. Any ideas?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

I'm different...#2

If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of US (1809 - 1865)

No, thank you.

I doubt this posting will have any important message or lesson to be learned. Just thought I'd let you in on a particular "current window" of my personality.

I don't like hot drinks. Not coffee, not tea. Not even hot chocolate. And by association, I don't like ice coffee, ice tea or chocolate milk. Actually, I don't know if it's by association. I just don't like them.

This often makes social visits awkward. People are always offering something hot to drink, and when I turn them down, especially on a cold day, I get strange looks.

Plus to be a computer proffesional and not drink coffee is as close to treason as you can get.

Now if that wasn't enough, about 10 years ago I stopped drinking caffeinated drinks. I'm edgy enough as it is. Plus, it makes fasting so much easier. But that means no regular Coke.

And when I'm watching my weight (which isn't often enough, for a "waist is a terrible thing to mind"), I'll only drink diet drinks. So that eliminates some more options right there.

Also, I don't like beer. In Israel it's not such a big deal, but in the US that also makes me an outsider.

So on the remaining beverages, all that's left to say is L'Chaim!

if you've ever recieved spam...

... then you'll enjoy Spamusement! Poorly-drawn cartoons inspired by actual spam subject lines!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What would Rabbi Akiva say?

Today's Pearls Before Swine

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Trempiquette (or Tremp-i-quiet)

Inspired by this post, I thought I'd mention a situation where I feel similar feelings of awkwardness when someone starts to talk to me.

Some background: As I mentioned in an earlier post, I tremp (hitchhike) to work. This saves me a lot of time (and honestly, some money as well.) I rely on the tremps, and I feel it is my responsibility to behave myself as well as possible on a tremp. This is both for ethical reasons, and the fact that a driver is much less likely to pick me up if it's not pleasant to do so.

Often I wait for rides at the trempiada either in Efrat or Jerusalem, and a number of people are gathered there. If I see someone I know, I try to be friendly - although there is an underlying aspect of competition, if only one seat is available in a particular ride.

The problem for me, however, occurs once I get in the car. Or better put, when we get in the car. Occasionally, a fellow trempist will try to strike up a conversation with me in the car. This is NOT GOOD! Unless the driver is talking to both of us, I don't want to say a word! Your (I'm speaking to the theoretical chatty co-trempist, not the theoretical reader of this blog) prattle might be fine in almost any other circumstance (except the bathroom, see above), but please don't make the driver resent us both! What if he wants some quiet time? What if he gets a phone call? Shush!

At some point I'll post on how I feel that giving a tremp today is like the "hachnasat orchim" of old, but today's mussar missive is for the tremp recipient, not donor.

I mentioned being good at trivia...

... I was so wrong.

Check out WikiTrivia.

Monday, May 23, 2005

In my prime

When I was in 7th grade, I got a calculator watch. The combination of a calculator watch and not such an active social life, together with my constant need to gadget (is that a verb?) led me into the interesting world of fractions. I would take the number 1, divide it by some other number, and find out what repeats. Some of these are easy, like 1/3 = .3333~. I also found that 1/7 = .142857~.

All of this is because 1 = .999~ (It really does. Trust Cecil.) So as long as a number consisting of 9's can be divided by some other number, it will eventually repeat. This page explains the idea pretty well.

Looking at numbers this way shows a real beauty that is found in the simplicity of the world. All this from a Casio.

My affection for composite numbers (the opposite of prime numbers) showed up later in life as well. When the Israeli phone company introduced two new features - one that calls back the number that last called you, the other that continues calling a busy number - I had trouble remembering which was which. The first was *42, the second *41, but I kept mixing them up. But then I remembered that *41 is known here as nudnik - and what's more annoying than a prime number? 41 can't be divided by anything! (I'm sure Hitchhiker fans could make a 42 association, but this was easier for me.) Might sound silly, but I haven't forgotten it since...

The Future of TV?

Conan O'Brien on the future of television.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

feeling sequential...

This Shabbat I was at my brother-in-law's house, and they wanted to play a game called Phase 10. Here's my thing about games: I like playing them, I can't stand learning how to play them. I just don't "get it". At least this time I was able to follow the instructions. My wife has had no end of frustration of my inability (my term) / unwillingness (her term) to learn such games as "Settlers of Catan" and Mah-Jong. I just look at the rules and get the shivers.

What's frustrating for my playing partners is that they assume that because I'm pretty good at one kind of learning, I'm naturally good at another.

Many years ago, my father showed me a kind of intelligence test where the results showed your method of learning. You were either Abstract or Concrete, Random or Sequential. This seems to be a widely known theory, and is discussed here. I don't know enough psychology to know if it is scientifically valid, but I can say about myself that I have a much easier time with sequential learning than random.

For example, I think that my difficulties learning to play games, drive a car, learn gemara and play most sports are connected to the difficulties I face in random learning, where many things happen at the same time, without a direct sequential order.

On the other hand, some of my biggest pleasures come from learning things in the concrete, sequential style. I love history, and remember things I learned in 7th grade. History is very sequential. And in general trivia is my favorite kind of game. All kinds of facts, where you just need to find a place to put them in your brain and store them there.

Two particular interests of mine are very much connected with my affinity for sequential learning: genealogy and etymology. They're both the study of where things come from, and show how we can't understand what something is today (a family or a word) without knowing what it once was, and what happened to its "cousins".

I'll probably end up posting a lot about both. In the genealogy realm I've discovered:

  • that I'm not a kohen but a levi
  • that a cousin of mine is actually related to his wife (fifth cousins, don't worry)
  • that I might be related to Anne Frank (I doubt it)

And in the etymological world, I've learned that:

  • cholent is related to the words cauldron, chowder and nonchalant
  • frum is related to prime, and prim
  • shmooze comes from the hebrew word shmu'ot

The above are of course just a few examples.

What is important is to remember that everyone has their own way of learning. The differences are what make the world so great.

The gemara gives a wonderful example of this:

Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler who is beyond all rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler [like Caesar, the Roman Emperor who was the ruler in their time and place] mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was…And yet not one of them resembles another. (Sanhedrin 38a)

I see both the sequential and the random, both the concrete and the abstract in this passage! (So please don't make fun of me for having a hard time learning that game...)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Truth is much stranger than fiction

There's a news story here about the real life Indiana Jones, and how he plans on finding the Ark of the Covenant by Tisha B'Av. He claims that the tunnels from the Temple led 18 miles south of Jerusalem, to the hidden place of the Ark. Maybe that will pass by Efrat...

While the story is making some buzz, I'm not too excited. I've already had my encounter with a real life character from a Spielberg movie. When I was in high school, we had a very small senior class (13 students) and an even smaller physics class (there were 3 of us.) I don't know exactly how, but the school hired a guy to teach physics named Jack Sarfatti. He wouldn't really teach us -he preferred to explain why he thought Steven Hawking was wrong. He would talk to us about his theories about time travel. This was odd, but it was San Francisco, so we weren't too shocked.

But what really got us was how he said he was the basis for Doc Brown in Back to the Future. He explained how he used to hang out with Spielberg and Coppola, and tell them his theories on time travel. There was certainly a similarity in appearance (not great from the photos I found online, but you'll get the idea)

Jack Sarfatti:

Doc Brown:

I've since then looked at his website, and here he claims that he and his friends were also the inspiration for Ghostbusters.

In any case, I prefer the movie character to the real person. It's simply easier to suspend my disbelief in a movie theater than in a classroom. And I assume it's the same way with Prof. Jones as well...

A couple of fun links



Sunday, May 15, 2005

A Very Powerful Piece

This is a great post - it shows exactly the complexity I tried to describe in my previous post, but as a story.

Decisions, Decisions

I've been placed in a number of situations recently where I've had to clarify my views on making decisions.

  1. My kids - in first and second grades - came home from school and told us how their teachers told them how terrible the prime minister and education minister were for firing all those teachers. I tried to explain to them how there were two sides to the story, and while of course it was important to give money to teachers, it was also important to give money to the police, sick people, roads, etc.
  2. Someone noticed that I didn't go to Gush Katif on Yom HaAtzmaut, and tried to infer from that my opinion about the disengagement plan. We had a long talk, discussing many points (plenty of which I've discussed here before), but the bottom line for me was that the situation, and my views on it, are complicated. I can't simply say I'm for or against the plan - primarily because I don't have all the information in front of me.
  3. A potentially controversial issue for our synagogue was discussed with me by a fellow member of the board. He felt it was best to have the entire membership vote and decide, and I felt that difficult decisions of that nature are best decided by the elected representatives.

What's in common here? I think it relates to the old distinction between truth and peace. There are many truths, all of which are desireable. They coexist and often conflict with one another. Only God knows how to truly reconcile them. We, as people, can only try to balance them out - often at the expense of the two conflicting sides. That's the effort to make peace.

Do I want to leave Gaza? Of course not. And I obviously don't want to fire 4,500 teachers. But I'm not in the position where I have to make those decisions. Because if I was, I'd have to take into consideration other concerns (international pressue and budget realities, for example.) My "opinion" or "gut feeling" simply isn't that relevant here. A judge needs to judge on facts, on evidence. But of course this approach is complicated, and therefore not too popular...

And this is why I think that on most issues, a referendum isn't the way to go. It's nearly impossible for a mass group of people to make difficult decisions, to take all sides into account - to make "peace" from "truths". If you had three referendums - to spend more money on education, to lower taxes, and to reduce the national debt- all would pass, but no policy could come out of it all.

I do want to make one point clear though. When asked why Shas didn't support holding a referendum on the disenagement, Rav Ovadia Yosef said something to the effect of "how can an old lady decide an issue like this? It's up to the experts!". In the case of the disenagement, I support the referendum, not because I think we're better qualified than the polictians who have access to often classified information. But here, by having a referendum, Sharon would be forced to explain his case in a way that hasn't been done until now. And while it might not change the minds of many people, I believe it would lower the tensions that might otherwise lead to violence.

One of the great things about learning Torah is you don't always have to make a decision. You don't need to decide whether Rashi or the Ramban is right on Chumash, or whether only the Rambam or R' Yehuda HaLevi is right in philosophy. Both can - and are - right. I often find myself the same way with political parties here. I see things on both the left and the right that make sense - eilu v'eilu. But when it comes to making a final decision we aren't left with that luxury. So at the mininum - we need to take all sides into account, examine all the evidence. And occasionally say - we don't have enough information to make a decision. That's not cowardice - but actually bravery.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Jerusalem Post and Me

The Jerusalem Post and I have had our ups and downs.

I first started reading it on my year in Israel after high school. It was 1990-91, the year of the first Gulf War. I've always been a news junkie, and the Post was my fix. In yeshiva and kibbutz, I'd be the first one to grab it, and read it cover to cover. I especially enjoyed the late columnists David Bar-Ilan and Sam Orbaum.

In the following two years in Israel I continued to read the Post, and even got a chance to visit the offices and meet with some of the staff members - Alex Berlyne, if I remember correctly. Interestingly, I remember asking Alex why the international edition of the Post was always so out of date, and couldn't they simply send the current news over to the States to have it printed there. This was shortly before the dawn of the Internet age, and Alex found my suggestion annoying - saying that the Jews abroad should really have their own paper.

When I was back in the States from 93-96, I became a regular reader of the Post's website, and I think on some level contributed to its popularity. When their website changed URL's in the early 1990's, I sent out emails to dozens of sites that had links to news sources, telling them to include the link. There are still some references to my suggestion out there on the web...

When we made aliya to kibbutz, we were allowed one daily paper. We chose the Post, although later the kibbutz preferred we take a Hebrew daily, so the post became only for Shabbat. For my daily paper I chose HaAretz, which was a significant choice. HaAretz was much more serious than Maariv or Yediot, and in many ways filled my needs the same way the Post had a few years earlier. So on a daily basis, HaAretz was perfect - better than the Post. But on Shabbat, I've never been able to connect with any of the Hebrew papers. I can read through them, occasionally find an interesting article, but I can't just relax with them the way I could with the Post.

When we left kibbutz, I actually ended up working for the Post for a couple of months. I was doing computer support for the Jerusalem Report, which is in the same building and owned by the Post. That's when I really felt like I'd reached the summit. I got to know all the staff; there were no more secrets. The romance was gone - certainly after they let me go during layoffs.

After I left, the only connection I had was via the website (and the Shabbat paper, which I still get now). But when HaAretz came out with their English website, there wasn't much choice. It was simply a much better site, so I would end up there much more often. And as if to say "we don't want you back", the Post added pop-ups and other shtick that made its site slow to impossible to load, so now I often go days or weeks without entering it. (Which for me, still a news junkie, is significant.)

A new twist is that the revamped HaAretz site is less comfortable for me than the old one, so I actually find myself not going into either on a regular basis. My guess is that RSS will be the future here. Ynet already has an RSS feed for their English headlines, and the Fresh news site, while not RSS friendly, has a lot of the same functionality.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Email and Instant Messaging can lower your IQ...

This explains a lot...

Sunday, May 01, 2005

What I'm reading now...

I'm actually reading four different books right now - each in a different part of the house or my routine. I don't think there's any common thread between the three of them, other than because I'm reading them concurrently, it's taking much longer than if i read them sequentially...

  1. HaEzrach Y (Citizen Y.) - I just bought this one over Pesach. It's a cute little book, in Hebrew, where the author pretends to be an older man, writing to all sorts of government ministries, companies, and other institutions with crazy questions. He writes very politely, and they write back. Many (if not all) of the letters are on this website. Great for laughs.
  2. Chaim Weizmann: A Biography, by Norman Rose. - We got this years ago at a garage sale in Boston. It's a rather long book, and I've tried at times to start reading it, only to give up in the beginning. But for the past several weeks I've been reading it again, and it is interesting. I've only read up until the early 1930's, but the book paints a picture of a real visionary, with true leadership. We often look at the state as a part of an inevitable process, but without the efforts of people like Weizmann, I can't see how the state would have come into being. An interesting aspect of the book for me is how Weizmann put so much effort into effective political and diplomatic relations with the British government. My cousin Amichai Paglin was the military leader of the Etzel, and fought strongly against the British. A couple of years ago I finished reading the story of his efforts. I had pride for what he accomplished, anger toward the British, and felt that Weizmann didn't act strongly enough against them. Again, I've only read the Weizmann biography up until the early 30's, but I'm beginning to see that perhaps the issues were more complicated than I previously thought. Perhaps after I finish reading the book, I'll post my "final" conclusions.
  3. Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn - In a previous post I discussed how I felt my father's educational philosophy jives with my religious approach. This book operates on similar lines, and expands the danger of rewards, and the value of intrinsic motivation into the realms of the workplace and childraising, as well as school. The book is full of ideas that are obvious once read, and are hard to believe that you didn't see them before.
  4. Mishnayot Masechet Maaser Sheni - For nearly a year, I've been walking around with a pocket Kehati mishnayot in my... pocket. I often only read a mishna or two a day, but there is satisfaction in starting, and hopefully someday finishing, a project like this. I also get a fascinating insight into life in the times of the Tanaim. How debate and discussion was valued (didn't see anything about Daat Torah there), and how much they really liked cakes made from figs.