Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

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.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The end of summer vacation?

I have real sympathy for folks who struggle to make ends meet but there's nothing more annoying than upper-class writers who just can't figure out what those folks' lives are really like. Consider, for example, this article in Slate on the lack of vacation for many American workers. Why are vacations imperiled? Well, part of the reason is:

There are several factors at work here. To begin with, technology has helped iron downtime out of the economy. Many Americans are struggling to cope with job creep—the phenomenon of work quietly grabbing more and more of our leisure time. We are forever receiving co-worker or client messages on our BlackBerrys, or responding to work e-mails on our home computers on weekends, or lugging our laptops on vacation.

Yeah, all those down-scale workers who are constantly checking their blackberries and laptops - it's a real challenge to our vacations....

The Victim President

Obama combats darker side of Internet politics
Sayeth the AFP, a French news agency...

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Democrat Barack Obama has shown the stunning power of the Internet for political fundraising. Now he is fighting its darker side as a vehicle for "smears" against his bid for the White House.

Pausing from a war of words with Republican John McCain over taxes, the African-American senator Thursday unveiled an interactive website to debunk false rumors peddled by email and right-wing media outlets.

The site at was created after one recent, and thus-far unfounded, assertion that Obama's wife Michelle had been caught on tape slurring white people.

"We created an interactive tool to allow our supporters to fight back against these smears in the same way that they received them -- on the Internet," campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

President Barack's victimhood amounts to this so far: Somebody, not a "right-winger," alleged a tape involving Mrs. Barack saying bad stuff that probably doesn't exist. [I won't repeat the charge here in case it's false.]

And some folks, who easily could have been Hillary supporters as "right-wingers," sent emails around awhile back saying President Obama is a Muslim, although he actually professes Christianity.

Is there anything else? At some point, disagreeing with President Obama will not just be "smears," but honest disagreement on the issues of the day.

2010, I make it, if then, if ever. I'm feeling damn unified already, howbout you? Duckspeak, doubleplusgood.


Sunday, June 08, 2008

Eulogy for Neo-conservatism

Like the Bush Administration itself, I mostly gave up defending the decision to go ahead and topple Saddam quite awhile back. There's simply no percentage in it. Fellows like this fellow are on about WMDs Bush lied people died blood for oil, whatever. Case closed, as the victors get to write the history.

I've admitted that I'm a neo-con, or at I least was one, if neo-conservatism isn't already dead and buried in an unmarked grave in Iraq. And our friends on the left throw dirt on the neo-conservative grave at every opportunity, as if somehow neo-conservatism was a brand new thing invented by Paul Wolfowitz, the Kristols père et fils, and of course, Leo Strauss.

And there are no small number on the right who have agreed, not in the least the late William F. Buckley, a "traditional" conservative, although his "traditional" conservatism actually dates back to only the mid-1950s.

So let's take a look at this mess---

Before Edmund Burke [1729-1797], a British parliamentarian, became the “First Conservative,” he was quite the liberal, supporting the American colonists, opposing slavery, and fighting for expanded rights for the Irish. It was his opposition to the Jacobins that led to his being trashed by the liberals [Whigs, his own party] of his day, most of whom thought the French Revolution was a great idea.

Burke supported war against revolutionary France, to quarantine what he saw as the contagion of a diseased ideology.

That the neo-cons were in favor of warring against both Caliphatism and its secular counterpart pan-Arabism [Ba'athism is one variety] seems quite consistent with the classical liberalism---or Burke's original conservatism---that favors both individual liberty and social order.

Although arguments from prudence against the Iraq war are worthy [too expensive, too much carnage], the neo-con scheme just might work. Pan-Arabism is quiet, and according to some, the book may be closing on bin Ladenism as a growth industry because of the tyranny and brutality it has already shown to be in its nature.

Are the neo-cons [R.I.P.?] conservative or liberal? The answer is yes. Will we go the way of the Whigs? As a political force, it sure looks like it. But neo-conservatism has actually been around for awhile now. Things---if they hold truth---have a way of coming back around, in different times and in different forms, when they are needed.


Friday, June 06, 2008

In Defense of Small-Town Life

Jim Manzi's quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. He's clear, sensible, and (mostly) right. This (blog post) essay at NRO really hit home with me. Not because I grew up in that sort of town. I didn't - I was an Air Force brat who moved from suburb to suburb. Rather, it hit home because it so clearly articulates what's missing in our contemporary political options: if there is one thing that at least the national Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it's that things local must go, whether by virtue of chain-store reconstruction or bureaucratic centralization (or, preferably, I suspect, both). Local communities don't fit into "rationally" planned ideals - they are too thorny, too full of idiosyncratic traditions that don't always make "sense." The essay is well worth your time and reflection.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Hillary for VP?

As I write this, cable news is flashing that Hillary and the Man Who Would Be King are meeting face-to-face.

My observation is that Barack Obama has always taken the path of least resistance. Hillary would be the easy choice here, just as joining a high-powered and somewhat wack black church in Chicago was, as was accepting the support of William Ayers and his considerable Chicago network, Ayers being the ex-terrorist who helped bomb the Pentagon and now masquerades as a respected academic.

The no-brainer choice [and I don't mean that in a bad way] would be to select Gov. Phil Bresden of Tennessee or Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio. Both would give Obama considerable clout in the Caucasian Belt, which leans Republican, and where Obama struggles even against Hillary.

The smart choice would be the best man for the job---Evan Bayh, son of the legendary Democrat Birch Bayh, a staunch Hillary ally, and himself both a two-term governor and now senator from Indiana, a Republican state and one with a lot of white people.

Two birds, one stone.


Quick Take on Election 2008

I'd love for the United States of America to elect a black president. Especially one with the middle name of Hussein.

I'm totally sincere. It would clear the decks of white male imperialism/racism that's really Europe's fault, although many white Americans take the shame for it, stupidly.

[Our Founding Fathers thought Europe sucked, which is why they and their own fathers fled it. I think Europe sucks too, past and present. I hate white people myself, and I am one.]

If Barack Obama uses the word "liberty" in a meaningful way between now and November---"liberty" as the Founders understood it, the freedom for every individual to pursue his own excellence, what made the USA the greatest nation in man's history---then I'll vote for Barack Obama my owndamnself.

But I'll bet against him ever speaking of liberty meaningfully. The word is so far missing from his life's vocabulary. He believes in community organizing, of fighting for "us" against "them," whoever "them" is. [I think it's me.]

Obama does not speak of liberating each individual soul to seek the best it can be. We call that "freedom." When he speaks to his giant crowds, he sees only the crowd. Crowds by definition are not free.

America was not built on crowds, nor did it become great by crowds demanding full service from their government. Ask not what your country can do for you, one admired American president once said.

I don't think President Obama gets us.


Sunday, June 01, 2008

Lucas Strikes Again!

So a few buddies and I went to see the new Indiana Jones movie, full of expectations that it wouldn't really be all that good. Sure glad it wasn't like I expected - it was much, much worse. How bad? Well, let me count the ways... (no doubt there are spoilers here, so read as you will).

1. Harrison Ford's been taken over by some sort of zombie spirit. That's the only explanation I can give for his most lackluster performance ever. His heart just didn't seem to be in it. He's got a couple of clever lines, but he really should switch back to the caffeinated stuff. Can't hurt...

2. Plot. Who in the world thought this was a good plot. The first movie works so well because it manages to tiptoe along that line between being merely fantastic and being simply ludicrous. This one just goes ludicrous (and is bizarrely complex to boot). Aliens? Who are inter-temporal and all sorts of powerful, but lose a skull to some half-baked conquistador?

3. Any movie that can turn Cate Blanchett into that bad of an actress has, I'll have to admit, really accomplished something. It's like Lucas and Spielberg were watching a Boris and Natasha marathon right before production. When Blanchett gets one of those lifetime achievement awards many years hence, I suspect that this little part may be neatly excised from her history. I'd be happy to have it excised from mine.

4. What was up with the McCarthyism stuff? The first 20 minutes are full of it and then it disappears - the only explanation I can come up with is that it's a way of "balancing" the anti-communist stuff in the rest of the movie. It's odd, but you come away with the sense that the movie doesn't really *like* commies, but there's no equivalent to the famous "Nazis! I hate Nazis!" catch-phrase, especially odd given that there are so many other parts of the movie that are clearly meant to be tributes to the earlier ones. I guess commies are bad, but not that bad.

There are probably many other ways the movie sucks rotten eggs, but that's enough...