"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion

My new paper on the private-sector contribution to pharmaceutical science, coauthored with Joe DiMasi and Chris Milne (both of Tufts University), can be found here (pdf) or here (HTML). The attendant op-ed, from today's Wall Street Journal, can be found here. Comments welcome.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Vouchers and Public Education

So the typical objection to vouchers is that they would undermine the public school system and "leave behind" the weakest of of students. But that's always seemed to me largely nonsensical, given that the choice is between largely what we have now and a voucherized system - and that know we already have school choice. It's just one organized by geography and income.

It seems to me that the *real* objection to school choice - and this is where liberals' willingness to have other systems voucherized comes into play - is that it would trim the state's ability to use education to shape its future citizens. When people talk all swimmingly about "public education" and its "role in building our country" what they're channeling (perhaps only unconsciously) is the idea that education is about (in part) separating children from their parents' benighted, un-progressive views and turning them into constructive citizens. Voucherized systems would make that more difficult, I think. It's one of the reasons, after all, that the first "homeschoolers" really showed up among the hippies in the 1960s - they didn't want "the man" getting a hold of their kids.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

NYT: Obama Better Than Bush

The New York Times makes the difference between Barack Obama and George W. Bush nice and sparking clear. All from the same article, mind you:

Mr. Bush’s critics, including former aides, have portrayed him as too cloistered, too dependent on a small coterie of trusted aides...

But Mr. Obama’s ease belies a more controlling management style. For all the success his campaign has enjoyed with grass-roots organizing, the operation is highly centralized around Mr. Axelrod; David Plouffe, the campaign manager; Robert Gibbs, the communications director; Pete Rouse, his Senate chief of staff; Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend from Chicago; and a handful of senior advisers that has barely changed since he opened his campaign in January 2007.

Oh, I can see the difference. I'm sure you can, too. Actually, and to their credit, I think the NYT reporters are trying to slip the truth in there somewhere, knowing that most folks only read the headline and the first few grafs that appeared on the front page.

Their secret is safe with us. You'd have to actually read the whole article to see what they're up to. Their jobs are safe.

Even more braintwisting from the NYT on how Obama's better than Dubya is chronicled here by Erick at Red State, comparing this NYT story with one on Dubya in the year 2000. Take an Alka-Seltzer before clicking over, word up. Valium might be better.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Biblical and Talmudic Perspective - III

My first two entries were in two separate categories. The first referred to miraculous and revelatory matters in Biblical and Talmudic sources that can be tracked into our present reality. The second focused on the rich source material for getting a better glimpse into the day-to-day lives of our ancestors two to three thousand years ago.

Here is another example of the former.

Scientists consider the fact that there is very loud noise emanating from the corona of the sun, but getting lost in space, to be a recent discovery, developed over the last forty to seventy years. This segment gives a good synopsis of what is known.

Here is the Talmud weighing in on this subject 1500 years ago. And I quote (Yoma 20b): "Our Rabbis taught, there are three sounds that travel from one end of the world to the other, the sound of the corona of the sun, the sound of large urban populations and the sound of the soul as it leaves the body; some say also the sound of childbirth; and some say also the sound of Radia (or Radio)."

There was a clear awareness that the corona of the sun produced sound, but that it somehow did not reach us in an audible form.

Tangentially, Radia is explained to be an angel who somehow is tasked with connecting the heavens and the earth. (Maimonides famously explains that all angeels are scientific forces. But, he complains, the masses are not subtle enough to understand this, and they think him a heretic for not taking the prophetic images of creatures with wings literally.)

Incidentally, as a kid I found that Ripley, in one of his Believe It or Not books, was amazed that a sound said to traverse the globe (or the universe) was called Radia or Radio. If indeed the title came from the Latin word for ray, it shows that they believed sound to be a form of ray, which touches on the recent approaches of merging wave and ray theories in modern acoustics.

Biblical and Talmudic Perspective - II

Perhaps the most vivid example of basic knowledge that is lost to our secular encyclopedists by their ignorance of the Bible and Talmud is the history of table utensils.

Some years ago, an article in the Chicago Tribune traced the practice of eating with a fork and a knife to the 1600s, a mere four hundred years back. That totally blew my mind, considering my own life history, as I shall explain. Sure enough, this seems to be accepted wisdom. This segment from Diner's Digest is typical. It indicates that in the 11th century a Greek princess brought forks to Venice and was branded a heretic. They did not come into common use until the early 17th century.

The first apparent mention of a fork in the Bible is in Exodus (27:3) where it uses the Hebrew word "mazleg" to designate an implement used in handling meat on the altar. However, Rashi (1040-1105) interprets this to mean a hooked prong that was used from a distance to manipulate meat still burning on the altar.

However, the same word "mazleg", this time clearly meaning a fork, is used in Samuel I (2:13-14). "And the Priests made a rule among the populace, that whenever a person slaughtered an offering, the young Priest would come as the meat was cooking, with the three-toothed fork in his hand... whatever came up on the fork the priest would take..."

In modern Hebrew, mazleg is in standard use to mean a fork.

In Hebrew School in the 5th Grade,we began basic Talmud study with the chapter that discusses returning lost objects. As a general principle, items found in situations where the owner is likely to be optimistic about their being returned, and with identifying marks, must be advertised and may not be kept. If there are no unique markings, or if they are found in situations where the owner will assume loss (such as at a huge carnival), they may be kept.

One of the cases dealt with (Bava Metzia 25b) is when things are found amid the collected neighborhood trash. The decision is that forks and knives found there may be kept, because the owner will entertain no hope of it resurfacing in the garbage dump.

The Talmud was compiled in the 6th Century. Not only are forks and knives mentioned casually, but we even encounter the common scenario of accidentally clearing some utensils into the trash along with the food remnants.

The way this subject became a personal issue for me in the 5th Grade was because the Talmud uses the Aramaic word for fork, which is pronounced either 'hemnik' or 'himnek'. You can imagine what my classmates did with the similarity to my family name, devising all sorts of gags and pranks.

Incidentally, the Jews do not take credit for inventing this implement. Here is the the quote from Rabbenu Hananel, the 11th Century commentator from North Africa, on the above section of Talmud: "A himnek is an implement with multiple prongs, like the (Biblical) fork with three teeth, and it is the practice of the Greeks to steady the piece of meat while cutting with the knife, then eating. He can take what he cut and put it in his mouth without his hands touching the food at all, thus avoiding the grease."

Clearly, having this sort of basic knowledge as part of our cultural heritage enables us to know better the history of civilization.

Biblical and Talmudic Perspective - I

When my daughter recently was assigned the anaconda snake as a topic for a school assignment, I was enlisted to assist, if only by doing our modern lazy form of research, i.e. Google.

The lowest form of parenting is pointing out the correct book without revisiting it yourself at all. To avoid being tarred that way, I did a quick scan of the basic info.

To my shock, the section (in Encarta, the kid-friendly encyclopedia) on physical characteristics begins thus: "Like boas and pythons, anacondas retain primitive features that indicate ancient lizard ancestors. The snakes have traces of a pelvis and hind limbs."

As a child in Hebrew School, we studied the story of the snake in the Garden of Eden. We were taught the Biblical text along with the Jewish traditional exegesis. The full story is that the snake was an upright animal who stood on legs and was attracted to Eve. His scheme was based on enticing her with this fruit, eventually luring her away from her husband. When he was punished, God tells him (Genesis 3:14): "You will travel on your belly." As a consequence, his legs were taken away.

For some odd reason, I found this image one of the hardest to accept, the idea that the snake had legs and they atrophied in some way over time as an expression of a moral consequence.

Still, my teachers clearly were not aware of this astonishing vestige that can be witnessed in the current structure of the serpentine anatomy.

Nor are the writers of the encyclopedia conscious that they are communicating material that provides support for the very first incident described in the Bible.

This occasioned in me the meditation that an odd disconnect has crept into the modern consciousness. The basic premises of the Bible, whether in physical or theological reality, are simply not in the forefront of our cultural awareness, rendering us poorer as a people.

Hopefully, this can be the first in a series of notes expanding upon this theme. Please let me know if you find this of interest.