11/18/20

Hathor

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.

10/2/20

Mightier than the smallest child

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.

09/2/20

Retrospect

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.

08/29/20

D’var Torah

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:

Hi, Minyan!

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.

04/21/20

“The Ways of the Lord are Unfair”

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.

03/20/20

The Concrete Box

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.

02/12/20

Last of the Divas

New York Times: Mirella Freni, Matchless Italian Prima Donna, Dies at 84

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.

12/28/19

Last Things

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.

10/24/19

It never dawned

My music purchases tend to come from Franklin, Tennessee. Naxos has eaten up every classical music distributor in the country, and the resulting warehouse probably holds upward of 3 million items. It’s a good location, close to Nashville’s airports and supplied with trucking arteries. But when I started looking at the area with Mapquest, I noticed this:

Franklin is entirely surrounded by plantations. It is as if the 13th Amendment never dawned. Likely the plantation owners send their chattel to the warehouse, where they pack and ship all day. I have known all along that Klaus Heymann would do anything to keep his costs low on his Naxos CDs — he is famous for inducing lesser musical organizations to record with him without royalties — but taking advantage of a rift in time to avail himself of Confederate labor practices goes beyond ingenuity. It may be difficult to find anyone in William Barr’s Department of Justice who will investigate this situation, let alone mount a prosecution. I hope that Franklin and its plantations will come to the attention of the next administration.

09/11/19

Said the Spider to the Fly

I don’t know if you’ve seen this opinion piece from the nether regions, but the NSA wants US business to develop its technology, build its infrastructure, and staff its projects. There is actually a compelling reason for this, which I will get to shortly. The given reason is that the clear and present dangers facing the intelligence community, and, by extension, the world, warrant it. These dangers also warrant weakening the Fourth Amendment in order to save it, a point of NSA argument which one could see coming a mile away.

Here is the actual reason the NSA wants US business to hand over its technology, infrastructure, and staff. It is one of the worst places to work in the tech industry. It couldn’t keep talent if it tripled its pay and brought in massage chairs and free dry cleaning. The word from my friends in Silicon Valley is that they are besieged by NSA workers longing for freedom (and higher pay). This means not just the hot young talent who can field offers from Facebook and Google, but the “lifers,” the people who crafted the MS-DOS exploits of the 1980s in hand-tuned 8086 assembler. They all want out. First of all, management has done for creative hacking what the TSA has done for air travel. They were stung by Snowden, so they are consumed by making sure the exact same thing never happens again. That means an environment of complete distrust by management, insertion of cumbersome steps into processes to make them “more secure,” and interrogations of harmless workers to make sure they feel the heat. I cannot think of a worse place for people who have to be supremely creative and imaginative. Second, I cannot imagine what the NSA is being asked to do under the Trump administration. I cannot see the bottom of it, and probably most of the remaining employees can’t, either.

So, the NSA wants US businesses to do its recruitment, training, and retention. This means that no one has to work at the NSA. They will work at the Big Five, or perhaps as defense contractors. But NSA HR, government pay scales, and the puppet masters themselves are not supposed to be visibly part of the deal. It’s the kinder, gentler way of getting to know everything about everybody; Facebook has collected this information from citizens voluntarily for more than a decade. As for the clear and present dangers, it’s between them and climate change. Simon and Garfunkel wrote, “When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at this you lose.” Cold-War-style “We’ve got to keep up before they do to us what we want to do to them” has no traction compared to implacable climate change. By the time the NSA achieves its goal of total information hegemony, Fort Meade will be underwater.

09/10/19

Fall Cleaning

We’ve just purged our user database of bot/one-shot logins, and there have been quite a few of them. If you’re not an agent working for one of the nation-states we’ve crossed over the years, or a running dog of dictators, feel free to create a new login and comment.

09/6/19

And Yet, It Moves

National Weather Service
1325 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Dear Sir or Madam:

Your cowardice under fire from a tweet will make you the laughingstock of every downstream consumer of your data and products, many of whom have both your data and your algorithms. I daresay that you have also earned the derision of every doctoral program in meteorology in this country.

Subordinating empirical data to political dictates is never a good idea – look at the biologist Lysenko in the Soviet Union. There are people on this planet who have undergone the keenest hardship to maintain the integrity of scientific theories and information. The greatest example of this has to be the Pisan astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was forced to recant and spend the rest of his life imprisoned in his house because of his idea, derived from that of Copernicus, that the earth revolved around the sun. Privately, he did not recant, saying “Eppur si muove.” History does not make much of that Pope and his Inquisitors; it has made Galileo both a secular martyr and one of the first true scientists.

The next time you get a nastygram on Twitter, trust in your data and your algorithms, and forecast accordingly. I realize that you have spouses and children, and have to eat, but there are many jobs you can do, out of the sphere of the public trust, that will feed you adequately.

Remember Galileo!

Yours, jkcohen

07/27/19

Health Care: English Only

I happened to be reading the Federal Register and came across this choice gem. The Trump Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services is poised to modify Obamacare in a curiously Trumpian way. It is withdrawing health care facilities’ mandate to serve people who speak little or no English. No more multilingual placards. No more mail in a patient’s native language. No more translators to tell staff what a patient is saying and vice versa. This will make it much harder for people who know little English to find appropriate and safe health care, to be informed about the care that they are getting, and to give informed consent to that care.

The draft legislation, which is about 400 pages, can be found here:

https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/06/14/2019-11512/nondiscrimination-in-health-and-health-education-programs-or-activities

At the top of the document is a big green button saying “SUBMIT FORMAL COMMENT.” Do it. Push that button, and write your heart out about about the inequity of treating people with limited English as pariahs, the false economies given as support for such treatment, and the consequences of letting someone into the ER who has Ebola who can’t tell you because he only speaks French and there’s no interpreter.

The closing date and time for comments is August 13th at 5:00 PM EDT. As of this writing, you have 16 days to submit a comment.

12/5/18

Due Obsequies Prepare

The shortest Yiddish curse I know, excluding epithets, is “Geh’ in drerd!” It’s the equivalent of “Drop dead!,” but if we expand it a little, it means “Go into the earth! Die and be buried!” And that is what I wish for George Herbert Walker Bush. “Go into the earth!” He will not get a week of mourning, a month of mourning, or eleven months of mourning. All he gets is this day, which is nearly over. Tomorrow, the mail comes.

10/21/18

The Big Hoax

I’ve been thinking about the Sokol2 hoax, in which various conspirators sent improbable manuscripts to twenty journals of “ethnic/identity studies.” Seven journals went ahead and published the manuscripts even though the manuscripts’ contents were avowedly nonsense. This builds on the work of Alan Sokol, who tried the same thing with literary theory journals, “showing” that their discourse was likewise nonsensical. Both of these moves attempt to discredit an entire class of journals by targeted attacks on a small sample of journals; the intended principle is contamination. This principle may not be applicable; there are those of us who have taken a brown spot out of an apple and eaten the rest.

I am helping a faculty member with a paper in an ethnic studies journal; there are four pages of painstaking comments from the editor, along with the mostly positive comments from two reviewers. I disagree with the editor, but I don’t think anything got by him; he had the extraordinary virtue of finding everything that was wrong or could be construed as wrong. I find it completely impossible that a nonsense article could have gotten by him. He would have rejected it, period, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten through peer review, either. The peer reviewers were pretty sharp, and one pointed out a legitimate hole in the argument that needed patching.

What was lacking from the ethnic/identity studies journals that published the Sokol2 papers? One guess is that they didn’t have enough money to hire a good editor with subject matter expertise and relied on an overtaxed board member to vet the article. But I have another guess.

Peter Elbow spoke of a reader who might play one of two games: the Doubting Game and the Believing Game. The editor whose commentary I was looking at was playing the Doubting Game at grandmaster scale – characterizing writing by what you can find wrong with it. This will induce fear and shame in the author, and the author will revise the paper ruing how bad it was. The faculty member whom I was working with had resubmitted the paper four times, and each time had gotten back pages and pages of withering “advice.” So, that’s one game. In the Believing Game, you focus on what’s right with someone’s writing. You err on the side of charity. You see what the author is getting at, and you help the author to get there. I am guessing that with some of these journals, one of the principles is to get the thoughts of underrepresented voices out in the world, and charitable principles mean a greater chance for the author to be heard. Sokol2 exploited this charity and used it as a weapon to attack the credibility of the journals and the views they stood for.

So, do we have to worry about Sokol3 perpetrators gaming more journals to disparage them? Yes. Should the journals spend an extra $90K a year on a master editor? (There aren’t that many of them around.) Should they play the Doubting Game to make themselves impregnable? Do they want to strike fear and shame into their authors, so that the authors regret having written anything at all? Or do we simply say that the Sokol2 perpetrators are like WWI German submarines: very effective at sinking ships, with very advanced torpedos, but sinking ships is in no one’s interest but theirs. No one is going to claim that the Lusitania was a legitimate target because she presented a very broad attack surface underwater.

Alas, there are no metaphorical depth charges that can be dropped on the perpetrators, and neither can the Humanities declare war against them. Probably the most solid defense against the perpetrators is PR — some kind of damage control operation, as used by rich people and corporations to mop up the consequences of their dirty business. Perhaps the MLA can put them on retainer. Nullify the PR explosion by investigating the perpetrators and publicly making clear what they have to gain. Explain the principles by which the journals stand. The perpetrators’ fraud will vanish into the dustbin of history. That is where fraudsters go; quick, without a Google search, who was Yi-Fen Chou?

05/24/18

The future of the Little Magazine

I just read Sven Birkert’s meditation on his top-flight literary magazine,  AGNI, casting its lot ever more definitively with online over print. The one thing that sticks out is online’s lack of concern for the future. When you send out print issues, you are lodging them all over the world. They are seeds. A central server, on the other hand, can go down. Its contents may not be able to be restored, even when there are backups. (Printculture is a case in point.) An organization may close, or go bankrupt, or decide that it is not worth transcoding old material to ever-newer media. At that point, all of what has been produced dies. The Wayback Machine shows almost no evidence that any of the websites I produced in the 1990s ever existed. If “the center will not hold,” there is nothing. So I look at Sven Birkert’s guardedly self-congratulatory message, and think that the words have a SELL BY date and that afterwards, the electrons will disband and go back to their chaotic realms in the universe. This is not a way to record our literary history.

02/20/18

Thoughts and Prayers

I realize that “thoughts and prayers” are being widely mocked as superficial and thoughtless. Prayer is far from useless, though. In a situation like last year, in which our best friend died of a brain tumor, losing her mind by inches, there was nothing empirical that we could have done. We could not have increased the efficacy of her treatment or the expertise of her doctors; we could not have altered the course of her cancer. It is in this kind of situation that prayer is useful because it goes beyond the usual channels of causation. Prayer addresses our Creator and asks Him to provide what we cannot supply ourselves.

Prayer requires focus and intention; it is not a little thought that from time to time surfaces in one of the eddies of the mind. Sustained prayer takes a while. On Yom Kippur, for just over a day, we do nothing but pray (except for the congregants gossiping and the kids running around in the synagogue courtyard); if we take the day seriously, we pray for our very lives. Now we feel it; our own lives may be forfeit in the coming year. Sholem Asch’s story of a fool/sage, “The Village Saint,” makes the stakes no lower; in the end, the fool/sage, who does not know how to read, communicates with God on Yom Kippur with a whistle, and it is enough to avert God’s severe decree.

But prayer does not substitute for action. You did not see the religious leaders of the SCLC, in the late 1960s, immure themselves in their churches and assume that their prayers would change everything around them. They had to go out, to march, to sit in, and to stand up. They had to stand up to the worst our society had to offer them, and they did so without regret. They likely did pray for their own lives and those of their congregants, but they went out and faced the policemen, dogs, and water cannons.

Most of the prayers I have made, either from the prayer book or my heart, have not been “successful.” It may have been due to my intention being less than complete, or to my having sinned in various ways and not taking care of that before my petition. It may have been due to hypocrisy on my part, or due to my having told someone of my intention to pray. And as for the greater problems that affect us in this country and this world, God may have already decreed that they take place. As the angel Gabriel says in the Martyrology on Yom Kippur, “You must accept this, my righteous, beloved ones, for I have heard from behind the heavenly screen that you have been ensnared.”

And yet still I persist — as some friends would say, holding an imaginary dialogue with a nonexistent old man with a white beard. The greatest effrontery of the “thoughts and prayers” locution is that prayer seldom takes place, even for a second. Perhaps if the “thoughts and prayers” people took ten or twenty minutes to pray from the heart, not to comfort themselves but to offer something up whose chances are unknown, the balance of our merits would change. Perhaps they would realize that it was still within their power to go out and change things and that the old man with the long, white beard was waiting for them.

02/7/17

Hépatoscopie.

Il y a quelque trente ans, pendant que je faisais la queue devant Louis’s Lunch, le stand à hamburgers célèbre de New Haven, j’ai entendu deux chercheurs en langues antiques se plaindre de ce que le glyphe qui revenait le plus souvent dans la tablette qu’ils étaient en train de lire ce jour-là était “hépatoscopie.” Apparemment, les Hittites, ou c’était peut-être les Akkadiens, pratiquaient l’art de l’aruspice à tout bout de champ.

Le procédé consistait à ouvrir le corps d’un petit oiseau ou d’un animal pour étudier la conformation de l’un de ses organes. Ce soir, je me suis soudainement rendu compte que ces Hittites, au lieu d’être simplement superstitieux, étaient angoissés par l’avenir, et qu’ils l’étaient toujours en dépit du nombre de prédictions qu’ils faisaient faire. Pour eux la conscience de ce que nous appellerions des “événements au niveau d’extinction” persistait malgré tous leurs efforts.

Nous autres Modernes, nous nous occupons de notre temps, et nous n’avons plus d’aruspices. Pendant un temps nous disposions de sondages et de têtes pensantes, mais désormais nous nous débattons dans le noir. Nos dieux étant à usage privé, il est difficile de les voir à l’oeuvre dans le monde. Nous avons la capacité de faire ce que les Hittites n’auraient pas pu faire: détruire le monde, rompre son mécanisme. Aucune civilisation future ne prendra la relève de la nôtre pour déchiffrer nos disques, nos rouleaux et nos bandes sonores, pour se pencher sur l’énigme représenté par ce glyphe qui revient sans cesse, “Tr*mp.”

Tr. H.Saussy