The GPT chatbot will certainly put teachers into another grading conundrum after turnitin.com had granted them a respite from the problem of plagiarism. It is an artificial intelligence, trained over vast domains of knowledge, which, among other things, can turn out plausible high school essays to order. But I have discovered a weakness in the program which will likely be corrected. GPT absolutely refuses to make qualitative judgments. If you ask “Why x is better than y?” GPT will split the difference every time. It says that x vs. y is not a good frame for the question, and instead puts in expository material for x and y. So, for example, “Is Süssmayr a better composer than Mozart?” They are equal, says GPT, because Mozart composed the Requiem and Süssmayr completed the Requiem. It’s specious except for someone with limited musical experience. Süssmayr knew his place, and he was not Mozart’s equal. His response was to repeat Mozart’s music, creating a “bookend” effect that minimized his intrusion into the score. This “evenhandedness” is a trick, a ruse, like ELIZA‘s. Teachers and instructors may yet be safe if they set questions that work around these tics. GPT is not good at supporting arguments. The real problem is that many people don’t care.
I stopped studying bankruptcy law 18 years ago. I am not an attorney. Still, I think the gross outlines of Chapter 11 are still in place.
Twitter, or what is left of it, will be in Chapter 11 in a month or two, thanks to three of its largest creditors. The court will pay professionals to scrutinize the company and find out what its assets and liabilities are. Then the Trustee will determine whether the company can be made to work and emerge from Chapter 11 under new management. I am certain that Musk will be no part of it. Or, he will say the company is DOA, and the only way out is to liquidate Twitter. And here’s the interesting part. Because Musk is the face of Twitter, and he is the alter ego of the company, the court can “pierce the corporate veil” and use Musk’s own assets to satisfy the creditors. These assets mainly consist of shares of Tesla and SpaceX. If they are liquidated, the share prices of these two companies would plummet due to a loss of investor confidence. In turn, this would further diminish Musk’s fortune.He will probably be left with a few billion, chump change. I can only imagine the good he might have done with all that money – global healthcare for all, a preferential option for the poor. But, no. Mr. Musk will have the fanciest lawyers, and he may emerge able to found another company without impediment. May the Almighty forbid it.
Current BK practitioners, what do you think?
So, the current Italian Fascists, who will now run the country, cut their teeth on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Pseudo-medieval derring-do always works in the same way. Two centuries ago, it was Sir Walter Scott whose Ivanhoe beguiled the Southern planter’s son.
I have been making mistakes all week in the afternoon service, and a friend tried to cheer me up by telling me that even the Kohen Hagadol was corrected by his fellow priests.
Sadly enough, the reason why the Kohanim Gedolim [High Priests] needed help with their services as per Mishnah Yoma [the book of the Mishnah dealing with Yom Kippur] was that they often attained their position by bribery to enjoy the position’s emoluments. They were in real danger from God if they were to exercise their duties in an inaccurate or faithless way. The priests sequestered them a week before Yom Kippur and drilled them mercilessly on the precise points of the ceremony. Perhaps the most perilous moment was when the Kohen Gadol had to pronounce the 72-letter Name of God, which effected the remission of sin for everyone. The shofars blasted as long as they could, but the Kohen Gadol had to say the Name under them. Often it was too much for the Kohen Gadol to learn the Name, and so, the backup Kohen, the Kohen with the most kehuna [priestliness], would pronounce it.
A year in which the Name was not pronounced correctly was an inauspicious and possibly deadly year for the Jewish people. One can imagine that the source of our national tragedies commemorated on 9 Av came from failures in Temple services on Yom Kippur.
The story of the Names, and how they evolved beyond the Tetragrammaton, has always fascinated me — how we could force God’s direct attention. My knowledge of the subject is limited to the Midrash, or, to be more precise, Die Legenden der Juden, a massive Midrash anthology from the early 20th century compiled by Louis Ginzburg. The simplest name of God is one character long: the yud. It went on Cain’s forehead, the message and its signature in one. It is amazing how many “magic numbers” we know of that cohort that could determine the length of one of God’s names. One, two, four, five, seven, eight, and then the squares of those numbers. And all of these letters had their value in gematria. The longest Name is seventy-two letters, and it was put in Jacob’s coffin as the Israelites left Egypt. Later, some prosaic medieval sages simply put together the consonants from lines in Psalm 21 and 23 to create a Name, although we don’t know whether it worked. And, of course, there’s the late Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the story “The Nine Million Names of God.” He said that you could simply work out permutations of letters to find the name by exhaustion of the problem space; in the story, there is a success, followed by the stars in the sky going dark one by one. One could imagine some unlucky Israeli computer science graduate student printing out the Name’s permutations and pronouncing them in the same manner. There is a medieval precedent for this. The scholar Moshe Idel writes in his book on the Golem that the Name is required to give life to the Golem and that the Maharal and assistants spent weeks working out the permutations, chanting as they went until the Golem quickened. The Maharal lived.
Now that we only know the four-letter version of the Name, Yom Kippur is a lengthy and draining holiday. No more, as in Temple times, can the scapegoat be let loose and the Kohen Gadol pronounce the Name, a procedure which might have taken under thirty minutes. The day, like Tu B’av [a day of joy after the wrenching Tisha B’av fast], could in its greater part consist of proposals, betrothals, and joy because we had all been redeemed.
Now, we labor and sweat at the most important job in the world, asking God for forgiveness, a task which we have no idea whether we have done well until the High Holidays come around again without disaster. We are monads, everyone praying for themselves, their loved ones, and for this benighted and perverse world. We look forward to the Third Temple, when the burden on us is not so great, and when we can rely on the Kohen Gadol. This world has become very large, and we have a set of earnest, learned, and upright men and women who can do the job. And if you doubt that there are female kohanim, our OC Jewish Collaborative employs a Kohenet, one of many. She will have to get used to flaying and dismembering the sacrifices, but perhaps one day she will be High Priestess by right and do everything without a mistake.
Formalized in 1952 by the United States Congress, people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.” The president is required by law to sign a proclamation each year, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day (Shouldn’t we all be praying everyday?) – my synagogue newsletter
While I myself pray, I think that the dismissal of those who do not and do not want to is problematic.
Some people dislike God to the point of active hatred. I knew several Holocaust survivors for whom this was the case. God’s inaction severed the covenant. There are others who believe in a faith called maltheism, in which God is real but is the enemy of all mankind, serving to maximize humanity’s agony and frustration. None of these people should be compelled by legislative injunction to “pray to a God who does not save,” as the Alenu puts it. Jews are pluralists out of necessity, lest our rights be trampled on by the much larger majority. We should not try to visit compliance on this much smaller minority.
Yours, Jonathan Cohen
I am not learned as Mr. Sholom Auslander is. I never had the opportunity to go to a yeshiva; the closest was my synagogue’s Hebrew School. But, yes, God does and has done many disagreeable things. In 1670, Baruch Spinoza wrote a book on this subject that Clarence Darrow might have cribbed for his arguments in The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. It is not commonly read these days.
Strangely, people often do not get the God they deserve. Our history is of brutality, persecution, and wars of annihilation (see the Book of Joshua). Our Hebrew Bible speaks in the idioms of violence and comfort; retributive, collective violence, as flashy as a Dirty Harry movie, that drives Mr. Auslander’s classmates wild; comfort in a time when God should be helping human beings pick up the pieces, but is instead smashing the pieces into dust.
When the verse “Pour out thy wrath” comes in the Haggadah, it is an expression of frustration and disappointment that God has not saved us by doing violent deeds on our behalf. It is a wish for a Dirty Harry end to history, where God strikes down the wicked one by one, with a witticism every time. We still have such wishes. 25% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats believe that this country can only return to a true path by exterminating the members of the other party. The two numbers flip every time the Presidency changes party. This is a very Godly solution.
The other solution is Moshiach, whom the Passover Seder prefigures. When God slays the Angel of Death, it may spark in Him a change of heart. The late Rabbi Steinsaltz, in his book on the Lubavitcher Rebbe, says that the Messianic Era will mark a period when the world gets so much better that a couple of decades later, it will segue into the World to Come. All the unfinished business about what God did and what we did will be dropped in favor of love. It will be a universal armistice and reparation. We know that God can act as we do. Still, can’t we posit that we both could learn before it’s too late, before there are no more human beings in the human experiment?
P.S. – If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the argumentum ab intra — the meteorologist who doesn’t believe in wind, the infectious disease doctor who doesn’t believe in vaccines, and, yes, the favorite of the evangelical chicken dinner circuit, the Jewish convert to Christianity who explains why Judaism isn’t “true” from his “insider” perspective. Even though Mr. Auslander has the unrestricted right to denounce his own faith and become an apostate, I worry that Jews and non-Jews alike will get his message but not the context. “Turn it around, turn it around, for everything is in it,” said Rabbi ben Bag-Bag, referring to the Torah. It is all in there, good and bad.
I realize that Anna Netrebko is to her country what Elizabeth Schwartzkopf was to hers, but can you imagine if the Soviets had asked Van Cliburn to denounce Eisenhower as a condition of his playing at the Tschaikovsky Competition?
[Commenters elsewhere have pointed out that in the Cliburn example, there was no American “inciting event” on the scale of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I would call these events Operation Hardtack, large-scale U.S. ground testing of nuclear weapons rising to a record high in 1958, and Operation Argus, exo-atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons to in future knock out Soviet air and space defenses. (Operation Argus worked in some respects, but it seeded the continental U.S. with radioactive fallout.)]
This country has learned nothing about nuclear brinksmanship in the past seventy years. 1956: the Hungarians overthrow the USSR puppet government, and Soviet tanks go right back to crush the Hungarians and re-install the puppets. The United States does nothing; Hungary is not worth setting the world on fire. 1968: Roughly the same thing happens in Czechoslovakia. The United States does nothing; Czechoslovakia is not worth setting the world on fire. And then there’s now, where the predictable decision is being made, aided by Putin’s declaration that he will launch if conventional forces arrayed against him seem like they’re going to win. We spent how many millions on RAND and the War Colleges for them not to have come up with an answer for this?
Yes, I’ve heard about the benefits of statesmanly multilateralism. All I can say is that if it doesn’t work before Ukraine is destroyed, it gets the President the “He Kept Us Out Of War” medal, which is what Woodrow Wilson got, and no better.
When I was tutoring last night, I hit upon an analogy between slaveowners and climate change deniers (which effectively includes most companies and investors seeking “Business As Usual.”) In both cases, they could not see their own ends coming, no matter how obvious it got.
Cotton and tobacco exhausted the land; it could have been left fallow or planted with cover crops, but no one did this. As a result, there was a constant need for new land to ruin. The various congressional compromises got them that land, right up to Texas, but the end of cheap arable land where slaves could be held was nigh. The slaveowners couldn’t accept it. There would always be more land! They thought of elaborate schemes in which they could conquer Latin and South America and create a slaveholding paradise free from Northern interference and moral censure. But it was not to be. War was the only thing that could move them from their checked position.
Just so, the deniers want to keep making money up until the very last second when we are all dead. They may be in bunkers or orbiting Mars, and they will have their carbon-generating paradise without censure — even if this is all a pipe dream. The only question is, now that the world is gone, who will give their money faith and credit? What will they buy? Whom will they hire?
My mother moonlighted from her teaching job as a secretary at Doubleday. We got all the remainders from the Science Fiction Book Club — plenty of Asimov, and I read copiously.
But one day, I found a copy of Madame Bovary on my parents’ bookshelf, started reading and realized everything Asimov had left unaddressed — interiority, personality, morality (or lack thereof). I realized that I could never go back and that a pile of Constance Lambert cheapie editions of the Russians was in my future. I wanted to understand what made human beings tick, which involved psychology, an area Asimov illuminated only with cartoons.
From a craft perspective, Asimov was an MFA instructor’s dream. Arrive at your typewriter at 9 AM, sit down, type, and do not get up until 5 PM. You cannot teach this. It has to be innate. But was the end-product good? He could write Asimov’s Guide to Paradise Lost, but he could never have written Paradise Lost. He could write about intelligent robots, but not about intelligent women — Dr. Susan Calvin was really a robot with chromosomes.
Ed O’Neill once remarked, “Asimov is an uneducated person’s idea of an educated person.” Just so. Asimov was a public library autodidact, just as I was, but he didn’t succeed in evaluating what was on the shelves, took a lot at face value, and assumed that he knew it all. He did write over 500 books, but I would have settled for a handful of good ones, ones that would not make me feel like a fool for my misspent tweens.
Today, I read an article about Schuppanzigh, the leader of the string quartet that premiered most of Beethoven’s efforts in that genre. It was quite interesting to read about the cut-and-thrust of the various players and their tenure. But it reminded me of an old Beethoven story, which I believe I got from Maynard Solomon’s book. Schuppanzigh was complaining to Beethoven that the parts in String Quartet #12, Op. 127, were too hard for anyone to play. Beethoven responded with his usual acerbity: “I am communing with the Almighty, and you expect me to care about your damned fiddle?”
I could go on for years about the deracination and degeneracy of my local LA classical station KUSC, which now also runs KDFC in San Francisco. I can reduce it to a T-shirt slogan: Classical Music Is Not A Pacifier For Grown-Ups. Beethoven would surely have agreed with me. You will not find the quartets on any playlists except in the late evening. So many of its slots are now devoted to listener requests! The entire point of classical music broadcasting is to use the superior taste of the host to educate the public via his or her choices, not to propagate Twinkle Twinkle Little Star because Jane in Rancho Cucamonga says it’s her favorite piece every morning because her puppy Tiddles licks her when it is played. Pandering leads to a continually shrinking repertoire, which they have codified at 250 pieces. Add to that the latest crossover sensations, movie music, and, so help me, video game music.
I have a solution underway. I can now broadcast music to my stereo via Bluetooth. If I can rip 4,000 CDs to a very large hard drive — a Synology NAS is out of my budget — I can create playlists that will scramble 3-4 years of continuous music and still do a better job than the drive-time people. The only question is whether Apple will end-of-life Windows iTunes, and when. But it would be better to have those mysterious people called announcers do the work for me, as they are supposed to do.
Today I saw a very odd listing from the University of California, Irvine, my former graduate school. It was a list of graduate programs that had fared well in national rankings.
Has UCI completely disentangled its English program from its Literary Criticism and Theory program? Terrific news! I can go back to English and work on belles lettres or else collate for the fourteenth time the existing editions of Shakespeare’s history plays. The late Hillis Miller once notoriously said that it would not be a tragedy if the libraries burned down, for then scholars would be free to write historical and biographical criticism all over again. I can testify that the books of that sort are not being read, so why not rewrite them? Brave move, UCI!
Elections: the dog who wouldn’t go! Coda: what do we do with millions on millions of brainwashed people who are likely going to be told to subvert the government? Biden says they’re “good people who want answers.” That’s like saying that the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf were good people who only wanted theological certainty. God had plans for them.
For months, I’ve been seeing ads for the Mightier unpleasant-parental-experience-killer. And that’s just how it’s marketed: it allegedly reduces children’s symptoms of negative and angry emotions that would disturb parents. (1) What if these emotions and outbursts are completely justified, and the kids are being trained to suppress themselves? (2) What happens when kids compare notes and figure all this out — that it’s an attempt to control them using biofeedback technology?
I should add that there is something completely stupid about parents buying magic boxes that are going to enable them to control their children. Those kids are going to figure out how the boxes work and route around them. The last such brilliant idea was called Circle, which paid startup cash for an endorsement from Disney. Circle was supposed to monitor and parcel out children’s Internet use no matter what device they connected from. It even had a battery in case kids tried to pull the cord out of the wall. Fortunately for kids, the website told exactly how it worked — a hacker trick where the box-in-the-middle pretends to be the way out to the Internet. This hacker trick (ARP cache poisoning) was such a scourge years ago that there are thousands of web pages telling exactly how to defeat it. Now the kids can monitor their parents’ Internet use through the admin app, which will lead to some interesting conversations around the dinner table. “Mommy, how can you say we don’t have enough money to get me a new iPad when you spent $2,600 this month on a purse from 1stdibs.com?” “Dad, I hope you’re enjoying those educational videos of Balinese dancers on XXXoticdancrs.com. Is ‘Wendy Whoppers’ a Balinese name?” That white Circle box will be out with the e-waste in the morning.
I have been reading a surprisingly good book by Sam Rosenfeld, The Polarizers. A phrase from it explains precisely how Biden won the nomination: “non-ideological patronage organizations.” In short, these are organizations that can deliver bloc votes, originally ethnic, now religious, or civil society. The DNC cultivated churches and neighborhood organizations for decades, gracing them with $1,000 there, $5,000 here. Then it was time to call in the chips, and these areas all miraculously turned out for Biden. There was no air left in the room for Sanders, Warren, or anyone else. It was retail politics at its rock-bottom — no adroit trickery — and it worked. Now we’ve got someone two answers away from Trump on the cognitive function test, and we’re going to have to work that much harder to dig ourselves out.
For the past couple of months, I have been praying with a minyan. A minyan is a quorum of at least ten Jewish men and women who get together every weekday to pray one or more of the day’s three services. Having at least ten means that certain prayers can be recited, most notably the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. In a way, we’re all doing this for the mourners, who need the minyan to fulfill the commandment; they now have help. But the minyan helps me, too. I have family and friends who are sick, and there are prayers I can recite to their benefit. I have seven on my list, from my brother, who is working hard to recover from a serious stroke, to a little, smiling, energetic girl — think Shirley Temple — who has a line sticking out of her dress that will accept 15 months of chemo.
The weekday afternoon and evening services are all business; the first one starts at 6 and ends at 6:15; the second one goes from then until 6:30. Only the basics, recited at a speed that would cause the Federal Express Guy to break a sweat. In between, someone will give a D’var Torah, a little observation on the weekly Torah portion, this one known by its first words as Ki Tetzei. I tried for the first time on Thursday night, and here is what I came up with:
Today I read the late Rabbi Steinsaltz’s essay on Ki Tetzei. As usual, it was far more erudite and eloquent than I could ever hope to be. But it raised an interesting point. Rabbi Steinsaltz notes Ki Tetzei consists of a bunch of mitzvot that are in no particular order, from scaring off a mother bird so you can take its chicks, to stoning your disobedient son. The first shows tenderness; the latter shows mercilessness. Rabbi Steinsaltz describes how he tried several hermeneutic strategies, all of which are found in the Talmud, to figure out the order of the mitzvot in Ki Tetzei. None of them worked, including examining the context of individual words next to other and the context of individual mitzvot alongside another. These methods ordinarily are very productive, but not here. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s conclusion is that “the Torah that can be understood is not the real Torah.”
But then the question is, “What happens if you inject this kind of doubt into the system?” How do we know what is the real Torah, what is an allegory, and what is simply incomprehensible? If we can understand it, how can it be the real Torah? “Lo tirtzach” [Thou shalt not kill], comprehensible or incomprehensible? That’s pretty heady. Let’s go back to the literal level. Ki Tetzei, to me, is as about as comprehensible as Torah can get. It is an instruction manual for a hyper-patriarchal desert society, and as all of us know, instruction manuals are not always in the best order. Moshe, in addition to being our teacher, also had to be a technical writer. He had to get information from his Subject Matter Expert, HaShem, and turn it into something that the Israelites could use. He had a serious deadline – the day of his death. And so he did the best he could, completing the chapters that he could, as clearly as he could. What Rabbi Steinsaltz sees as a serious epistemological gap might be just a production problem, and you never blame the Subject Matter Expert for a production problem.
The product shipped, and by now, there are now 100,000 minutely inscribed copies in the world, all of them containing the original version of Ki Tetzei. Hashem says in Devarim [Deuteronomy] 4:2, “You shall not add to that which I command you and you shall not subtract from it, to keep the commandments of the Lord your God…” No revision is possible, and Moshe knew it. But by the time of the Olam Ha’Ba [the post-messianic age], we will in no sense be the society Devarim assumed, and its literal instructions will be as useful to us as the manual for an Atari 2600. All its literality will pass into allegory and its allegory into anagogy. What is “Thou shalt not kill” when there is no longer the idea of killing? So, Rabbi Steinsaltz is right after all. Allegory as a starting place and anagogy as a stopping place are not today accessible to even our most profound mystics. Yet they will be the context in which Ki Tetzei will be understood.
I’ve been thinking about the response to the anti-quarantine protestors. I thought at first that it would be good if their actions had some consequences — that it would be fitting if they died of the disease, that there would be a “Darwinian” logic to that outcome. But then I remembered a verse from last year’s High Holidays. “Do you think God exults in the death of the wicked, and would not prefer that the wicked turn from their evil way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). What gets to me, and probably more than just me, is that we cannot convince the protestors, and Trump followers in general, that we are right. Maybe a great orator, a great trial lawyer, a great preacher could do it, but not me, not most of us. And we have to watch as they recklessly harm themselves and harm everyone whose space, within 5’11”, they invade. This great impotence, stemming from our compassion, is what angers us most of all. If we can do nothing, we turn to God, and what are His priorities? To let them live in the hope they will figure things out, a higher priority than immediate, visible punishment. We are left with that vexing reality. We can protect everyone we can, but it is not God’s priority to make a moral lesson out of those who ignore us.
I am not a hoarder of anything but books and CDs, and I have enough for the current purpose. It’s therefore been a shock to go to a cleaned-out Costco and see the work of real hoarders — whole sections cleaned out of paper goods, bottled water, alcohol, and other disinfectants, and baklava. I must confess that I took the last box of baklava but only after seeing an entire pallet of baklava higher up on the shelves. I do wonder how Minnesotans are doing; they are loath to take the last piece of pie, the last spoonful of Tater Tots, or the last Ole and Lena jokebook. They would probably wait for a sad person to come along, buy him the last Ole and Lena book, and walk out of the store.
The other sad thing about Costco unter militärischer Verwaltung is the amount of shouting and ordering that goes on. I suppose it’s needed to herd people and curb them from hoarding, but it feels to me like being in a detention center, admittedly a gentle one. I am obedient, I smile, I make little jokes, but there is a space between the TV aisles from which no one returns, and I note the endless line of people headed there. Perhaps they climb inside the giant screens and are suddenly in a better world.
Only one person spoke to me, about the circuitous lines to the checkout: “Why do they make it like Disneyland?” “Because there’s going to be a ride at the end.” I did not tell her that The Happiest Place On Earth had been shut down earlier that day.
It took me a while to shed the feeling of ruin: the titan of American consumer capitalism slain by its own shoppers. Its guardians will preside over less and less until finally, they are guarding perhaps one bottle of commodity Rosé and a box of Godiva Hollow Chocolates — perfect for that one post-apocalyptic romantic interlude between two chairs in a decorator-grey apartment. Then they will be at the end of their labors. They will run the End of Day Report, reconcile the tills, shut the lights, and pack up. “As it was for our fathers, so let it be with us,” they pray, and perhaps from there, outside of the big concrete box, their words will take flight.
Opera fans have a tendency to live in the past. “Yes, I’ve heard so-and-so, but if you listen to someone else’s 1951 mono recording of ‘Voi che sapete,’ you will see that this new singer is just an epigone.” If one has time and a record library, the years seem to drop out. I can hear Ring cycles by half-a-dozen conductors across the whole of the twentieth century, and when I am enchanted, I forget that three of those conductors were Nazis; there are just voices in time. But time does advance, leaving a trail of dead singers who now represent marketing opportunities for the record labels. I expect bookcase-breaking sets of Ms. Freni’s back catalog by fall; I will likely buy one. I admire her integrity, her skill, and her art; people seldom get to be so good at what they do.
I remember the day in 1982 when I read Jonathan Schell’s first chapter of “The Fate of the Earth,” which ran in the New Yorker, depicting events as an 80-kiloton nuclear bomb exploded 500 feet above the Empire State Building.
Immediately, my mind went to the idea that the President would know about it as soon as the Soviet missiles were launched, and that he would have to address a nation that might not still be alive minutes after his broadcast. The President would have to be serious, comforting, dignified.
I do not want my last minutes of life on this earth to be spent listening to Donald Trump whine from his Doomsday Plane.