Archive for the ‘current events’ Category

Jerusalem through CNN’s Eyes of Bias, Prejudice, and Malice

September 15, 2013 4 comments

I wasn’t going to say anything, but when CNN started featuring their misguided article about Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, I felt I had to speak up, because the piece reads like a deliberate attack in the guise of journalism.



The network has a series called “Parts Unknown.” To promote the first episode of the second season, CNN has posted 10 things to know before visiting Israel, the West Bank and Gaza by Matthew Teller, writing “for CNN.”

Everyone has a bias. And hard facts will always be open to soft interpretation in anything as complex as a modern country, particularly one continuing an evolving 3,000-year-old culture at the crossroads of three major world faiths. I’ve written about Jerusalem, for example, and presumably some people didn’t like what I wrote.

PullquoteSo I’m not surprised that CNN’s author highlights the connection between the Quran and the Muslim Al-aqsa mosque even though he omits the Bible’s many references to the Jewish Temple. Nor am I surprised by the author’s claim that the Israeli security barrier was “built to keep Palestinians from moving freely.” I don’t believe it was, and I believe that the author’s spiteful words hinder serious conversation about the unintended consequences of battling terrorism. But still, we might attribute these shortcomings to editorial voice on his part.

The factual mistakes are more troubling, like the author’s indication that the Western Wall was part of the Temple (it was and is the western retaining wall that supports the Temple Mount upon which the Temple was built), or his mistaken explanation that Judaism is simply a religion (contradicting, for example, the eminent Rabbi Ammi Hirsch). These are common mistakes, though, noteworthy only because CNN is promulgating the misinformation this time.

The real problem with these “10 things” is the ninth one, where the author apparently confuses the Palestine of antiquity with the modern Palestinians. “When you visit Israel,” he writes as a caption, “you’re also visiting biblical Palestine.” “Palestine” is one ancient name for the area that includes Jerusalem, so “biblical Palestine” is almost right. But Teller then takes the shocking step of using modern “Palestinian culture and the Arabic language” as an example of Israel’s biblical culture.

There is lots of legitimate room for disagreement when it comes to the Middle East. But no one of repute believes that the ancient, Jewish, Israelite inhabitants of ancient Palestine are the same as the modern Christian and Muslim Arabs who call themselves Palestinians. They just happen to have the same name in English. There is no reasonable justification or excuse for equating the two. Yet that’s what CNN does here.

There’s an old adage that one should never attribute something to malice if it can be explained by ignorance, so along with any other reader who cares about the Middle East, I have to ask: is CNN’s gross bias here born of prejudice or ignorance?

[In the interest of open debate, I have offered an opportunity to respond to the author, Matthew Teller, and to Anthony Bourdain, whose name appears in connection with the article.]

Categories: current events

Chasing Mediocrity

May 8, 2013 Leave a comment

I think that mediocrity is easy to measure while excellence is not, which creates a dilemma in the current era of objective assessment: when we insist on objective metrics of success — grades (for children), evaluations (for teachers), quarterly profits (for companies), recognized rules of writing (for authors), etc. — we motivate people to chase mediocrity.

For example, high schools in this country have been on a steady path toward more objective standards (starting with “No Child Left Behind”), while university professors, once they achieve tenure, are essentially accountable to no one. As a result, I believe, U.S. high schools fare terribly compared to the rest of the world, while our universities are arguably second to none.

Indeed, Forbes reports that “70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born.” These engineers come to the U.S. only for the education system that has no objective metrics of success, and, similarly, U.S. high-school students are unprepared for graduate work after their educational path based on test scores.

In the completely different realm of fiction, best-selling author Lee Child critisizes the writing industry for focusing on objective criteria of good writing, starting with the most well-known rule: “show don’t tell.” Writers follow the rule, Child says, because they’ve been “beaten down.” They are chasing mediocrity.

The now-defunct Bell Labs had a well funded department of researchers whose only job was to tinker; they were not required to demonstrate that they were earning their salaries. The department developed the transistor, the solar cell, the laser, and the first communications satellite, among many other innovations. Freed of objective metrics of success, the researchers were able to thrive.

The highly coveted MacArthur “genius” grants, officially the “MacArthur Fellowship” stipends, come with no strings attached and make no reporting obligations on the fellows, because, the foundation believes, the fellows “are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources.” They don’t want to push their fellows toward mediocrity.

The catch is that I think there’s a place for mediocrity, because sometimes the alternative is ineptitude. Or to look at it differently, “mediocrity” is sometimes “competence.”

I’d rather have a mediocre airplane pilot than an inept one, for instance, so I’m glad the FAA requires (14 CFR 121) pilots to undergo “check rides” to demonstrate their continuing competence.

So we seem to have two approaches: an objective-assessment model that pushes people from ineptitude up to competence, but also pushes people down from excellence to mediocrity; and a more flexible model that allows people to excel but also to fail.

The trick, I suspect, is knowing when to apply each one.

UPS is Too Busy to Deliver my Amazon Shipments (And the Downfall of Western Society)

December 19, 2012 3 comments

UPS and AmazonAfter twice failing to deliver a two-day shipment from Amazon, UPS informed me last night that they were simply too busy to bring me my package at all.

This is a huge problem for me, because I use Amazon a lot.

As an author, I frequently order my own books to give as gifts from Amazon, because of the company’s winning combination of low prices; fast, cheap shipping; very convenient website; and superb customer service. For my research, Amazon is my preferred way to get the reference material I need. More generally, when I know what I want — and even sometimes when I don’t — I often find that Amazon is the best way to go.

Until now.

PullQuoteLast night I had a conversation with my local UPS dispatcher, because the GSM World phone that I was supposed to receive on Monday hadn’t arrived by Tuesday night. The dispatcher explained that the drivers were overworked, and that DOT regulations required that the drivers come off the roads after driving for the whole day. Fair enough.

“But surely my package, delayed from yesterday, will get priority today, won’t it?” I asked.

“No,” was the answer. Then the dispatcher told me that the driver still had 60 deliveries to make, which, he thought, would take 4 hours. It was 7:30pm. The driver would come off the road at 10:30pm. My package would probably be delayed a second time. True to their “We Love Logistics” slogan, the dispatcher knew exactly what was going on, and precisely why I might never get my stuff.

Now, it’s just a phone. (I want it because I’m traveling to Israel next week, and my current GSM phone doesn’t have a built-in GPS. I’m tired of getting lost in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, which is literally built in non-Euclidean space.) This obviously isn’t worth risking the welfare of the driver, and I told the dispatcher as much.

So on the one hand, this is a prime example of the much mocked “first-world problem.” As an author and scholar living comfortably in the suburbs of New York, I might not get a device of convenience dropped off at my door as quickly as I’d like.

But on the other hand, I’m worried, because I see this as part of an increasing trend that leaves critical infrastructure in the hands of private companies whose motive (quite legitimately) is profit, not service.

We used to rely on the United States Postal Service (USPS) to send things, because, at least since the Romans, we’ve known that the ability to mail things to each other is an important ingredient in civilized life. This is why the USPS offered first-class mail even to remote locations, and even at a loss.

Similarly, and for similar reasons, we used to use a regulated phone network to communicate. The phone lines in this country were built to service everyone. And, I just heard, the system was designed to work 99.999% of the time, which is to say that outages would be limited to about 5 minutes a year.

But now most people where I live use Internet phones and cell phones, so they rely on local cable and wireless providers for communication. These companies, while regulated, are not required to offer any particular level of service, the thinking being that “the market” will ensure high enough quality.

Surprisingly, everyone was surprised during Hurricane Sandy when so many people were unable to communicate. The cable and wireless providers, it turned out, were making a lot of money by skimping on reliability.

Likewise, I now find that my default way of doing my daily business is in the hands of a company that, by its own admission, isn’t up to the task.

I grew up grateful that I didn’t live in one of the many countries where things didn’t work. But is the U.S on the path to becoming one of those countries?

(Incidentally, Amazon apologized profusely for the delay — in spite of it not being their fault — and credited me what I would have paid for shipping. UPS didn’t apologize, and blamed the DOT regulations and the number of packages. More on this interesting difference soon.)

Categories: current events

How the Secular Date of Dec. 5 Made Its Way into the Jewish Calendar

December 4, 2012 1 comment

Ancient Hebrew CalendarDecember 5 may be the most arcane date of importance in the Jewish calendar. It’s when we start saying the winter prayer for rain.

Right off the bat, a question presents itself: Why do we use a secular date to delineate this Jewish custom, when all of the others are based on the Jewish calendar? And secondly, what’s the magic behind December 5? The answers take us on a fascinating journey through Jewish text, nature, astronomy, history, infrastructure, and politics.

There are in fact two times we add a mention of rain to our service. The first, more familiar now, is the short insertion in the Amida prayer about God’s power: mashiv ha-ru’ach umorid ha-gashem. God makes the wind blow and the rain fall. The second is an addition to the prayer petitioning God for bountiful produce: ten tal umatar livracha. Grant us the blessing of dew and rain.

The 1800-year-old Mishnah — the initial compilation of Jewish law and practice — discusses both of these in the chapter called Ta’anit (“fasting”), starting with the first one.

There was general agreement that the insertion should commence during the rainy season, roughly Sukkot. The Mishnah records a disagreement about the details. Rabbi Eliezer considered the first day of Sukkot a good time to start praying for rain, but Rabbi Yehoshua countered that no one wants rain on Sukkot, so it would be better to wait until the end of the holiday.

But Sukkot is a pilgrimage holiday, when it was common to ascend to Jerusalem by foot. If we start praying for rain right after Sukkot, it might rain on those who are walking home.

So regarding the second insertion, Rabbi Gamaliel says that we should wait until 15 days after Sukkot to start praying for rain, that half-month being a reasonable amount of time to walk back to the farthest extent of the Land of Israel.

The Talmud — the great codification of Jewish law and practice that contains the Mishnah and meandering commentary on it — expands on the Mishnah and explains that in Babylonia they didn’t start saying the prayer for rain until 60 days into the rainy season of fall.

Jewish geography is exceedingly simple. There are essentially only three places: Jerusalem, the rest of Israel, and the rest of the world. Therefore, we in New York live in the same place (“the rest of the world”) as the Babylonians, so we follow their custom. We start saying the prayer for rain 60 days after the equinox.

The equinox is either September 22 or September 23.

But the careful reader may notice that 60 days after September 22 or 23 is November 21 or 22, not December 5. So we keep digging.

Shmuel, in the Talmud section known as Eruvin, calculates the four seasons as each lasting 91 days and 7.5 hours, and assigns September 23 as the start of fall. Because his became the official Jewish secular calendar, the Jewish equinox is always September 23. But we still wonder why we don’t start praying for rain on November 22.

Shmuel’s year of four seasons lasted 364 days and 30 hours, or 365.25 days. The solar year, though, is actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter. Because of this discrepancy, the Jewish equinox has slowly moved forward compared to the solar equinox, at the rate of approximately one day every 128 years.

The Catholic Church (by coincidence) also used Shmuel’s calendar, but unlike in Judaism, most of the Christian holidays are based on the solar date. By 1582, the official and solar calendars were 10 days out of sync, one result of which was that the springtime holiday of Easter was marching forward into summer.

So Pope Gregory fixed the calendar by doing two things. He dropped 10 days in October (the day after October 4 was October 15 that year), and, moving forward, he dropped 3 leap years every 400 years: years that are divisible by 100 would no longer be leap years unless they were also divisible by 400. (That’s why 2000 was a leap year even though 1900 wasn’t, and 2100 won’t be.)

In America and elsewhere in the world we use the Gregorian calendar.

The Jews, though, didn’t give a damn about Pope Gregory. So in 1582, the Jewish equinox moved ahead 10 days to October 3, the Gregorian equivalent of the Shmuelian September 23. Since then, 1700, 1800, and 1900 have been Shmuelian leap years but not Gregorian leap years. So now the Shmuelian equinox is the Gregorian October 6.

Sixty days after October 6 is December 5. And there you have it.

But don’t get too used to that date. In the year 2100 (a Shmuelian leap year) the day moves ahead to December 6.

[Reprinted from the Vassar Temple December 2012 bulletin.]

What Did You Used to Believe?

November 19, 2012 1 comment

"so they will not understand each other"Some years ago, a college student asked me, “what did you used to believe?”

I didn’t understand the question until she clarified, “what did you believe when you were my age that you don’t believe any more?”

It remains one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked.

Lots of things came to mind, but I chose what I thought — and continue to think — is the most important one: I used to think that most people were more or less like me.

I know that that borders on hubris and egotism, but there it is. I used to think that all it took to understand someone halfway around the world was to reflect on my own upper-middle class life in New York.

Obviously, there were differences: financial, cultural, religious, and more. Some people owned private jets and others couldn’t afford dinner. Some children grew up with families in homes and others on the street. Some religious leaders worshiped one god and others worshiped many or none at all. Some languages and cultures demanded formality while others all but precluded it. And so forth.

But I thought that when it came to what really mattered, most people were certainly like me. And — the other side of the same coin — I thought that I could figure out the differences without leaving my home.

I was the modern anthropological equivalent of the 19th-century armchair scientist.

Having now met some of the people I thought were just like me, I believe that I vastly underestimated the range of human diversity. Even my neighbors sometimes exhibit surprising variation. It was folly to think that I understood the people living in war-torn Sudanese refugee camps, imperial Japanese courts, child militias, Tibetan monasteries, remote arctic settlements, etc. — all without ever meeting them or talking with them.

All of this is on my mind as I watch violence flare in the Holy Land.

I learned long ago that even when people disagree — perhaps especially when people disagree — it’s important to ask, “what does the other side believe?”

I fear that in the present case, we have spent too much energy following the ethnocentric path that assumes that “they” are just like “us,” and put not enough resources into really understanding what the other side believes.

It may not help. To pick the obvious and trite example, understanding Hitler would not (I hope!) have made anyone less inclined to defeat him.

But we won’t know until we try.

Reflections on Hurricane Sandy

November 5, 2012 5 comments

The Aftermath of Hurricane "Frankenstorm" Sandy

The Aftermath of Hurricane “Frankenstorm” Sandy

The wind howling. The power and phones out. The trees arching precariously, some throwing their branches against my house, others crashing to the ground. The sun setting low behind dark, overcast skies.

Astonishingly, that was the calm before the storm, though I didn’t know it at the time.

As night fell, the winds really picked up, roaring louder than any bit of nature I’ve ever heard, save perhaps thunder. A local radio station — my only link to anything beyond the walls around me — reported gusts of over 100 miles per hour: the very air I breathe was racing faster than I’ve ever driven.

The ferocious “calm” before the storm:

Living essentially in the forest, I’ve spent many dark nights unable to communicate with the outside world. I’m prepared for power outages.

But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I wasn’t actually afraid for my own safety (though perhaps I should have been), but my pulse was racing and my heart pounding nonetheless. But for the cacophony outside, I’m sure I would actually have heard it.

In retrospect, I was reliving part of my past.

I re-experienced what my ancestors knew: Nature is awesome, not only in the modern “isn’t it amazing” and “I must take a picture” sense, but more along the lines of the transcendent “my greatest accomplishments pale in comparison,” and “I am both terrified of this and irresistibly drawn to see it.”

All in all, I was lucky. Dozens of people died, but I wasn’t harmed. A tree fell on my neighbor’s house, but mine is fine. (Other neighbors saw a tree fall on their backyard trampoline, voicing the opinion that it should have bounced.) Some not-too-distant communities were swept away, but I was unaffected by flooding.

Sandy left me with no water, heat, phones, electricity, cell reception, or Internet service, putting me in the category of the lucky ones.

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Truth, Lies, and Sins

September 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Truth, Lies, and SinI’ve been thinking a lot about truth lately.

For one thing, it’s been in the national news, for instance when Neil Newhouse, a senior advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, told ABC news that, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” That sounds a lot like a dismissal of the truth. Could that be because lying isn’t illegal?

I suspect that it would be a career-ender, or worse, for a campaigner to suggest that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by judges,” or in any other way to suggest that following the law wasn’t supremely important. But, apparently, it’s okay to dismiss the truth.

This callousness about the truth — and the widespread willingness to accept compromises on the truth — is especially surprising in a culture marked by such catchphrases as “truth, justice, and the American way” (originally from Superman) and “the truth shall set you free” (from the New Testament book of John), and whose founding father is lauded because he could not tell a lie.

Truth has a distinguished history: Aristotle loved both Plato and truth, but demands the truth be put first (amfoin gar ontoin filoin osion protiman tin alitheian — “Nicomachaen Ethics” i.6.1), Cato promotes speaking truth even though it’s hard (vera libens dicas, quamquam sint aspera dictu — “Dicta Catonis”), and Cicero claims that seeking the truth is particularly human (hominis est propria veri inquisitio — “De Officiis” i.4.13). Confucius, too, is in favor of truth, arguing that those who hear the truth in the morning can die without regret in the evening (Analects vi.18). So why have we changed our attitude?

Again, is the problem that lying is legal?

I bring up legality because for some time I’ve been interested in the interplay between the law and ethics, and, in particular, the lack of a codified morality in America and other Western nations. People are allowed, even encouraged, to do anything legal, while it’s often okay to do something illegal if you don’t mind the penalty. (For example, I’m told that UPS truck drivers in New York City are told to park wherever they want, because the fines cost less than late deliveries.) Most modern Western citizens are so used to this mentality that they find it hard to imagine things being any other way.

But there are other approaches.

TEDx: Bible Translation and the Next Generation

The Ten Commandments are interesting in that they single out some laws as having moral content. Their point is that killing, for example, is a matter of both legality and morality. (I have more in this TEDx presentation.)

And all of this brings up an essay I wrote for We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, which was just released last week. Central themes of that book include the nature of sin, its role in our lives, and the modern relevance of some ancient prayers that list our sins — both those we have committed and numerous ones we haven’t.

My focus there (in addition to serving as chief translator) is what we learn from being bombarded by sins:

The first [thing we learn from the Al Chet prayer about sins] is that some things are wrong. This basic Jewish tenet, so obvious to those who already know it, is neither intuitive nor universal. There are young children who take what they want only because they want it, never asking the deeper, Jewish question of Al Chet: “Is it right to do this?” For them, the world is divided not into right and wrong but, rather, simply into “what I want” and “what I don’t want.”

We Have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism, Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

Once we accept that some things are wrong, we have to examine our behavior, even our legal behavior, more closely:

Most of us, after all, aren’t murderers. Our lives are more subtle. Deception is an accepted part of negotiation, but is there a point at which we might go too far? Can I lie to the police to avoid getting a traffic ticket? Violence is part of a successful defense of peace. Is it justified? Doling out punishment to children helps them navigate the world as adults. How strict should I be? Misleading the ones we love can be an invaluable gift. What do I tell the people I love? Again and again, we wonder: have we done the right thing?

My general point is that taking time to focus seriously on sin is more important now than ever, if for no other reason than we have to remember that some things — like lying, I suspect — are legal but still wrong.

For that matter, Thoreau wrote that “it takes two to speak the truth — one to speak, and another to hear.” Are we who put up with untruths as guilty as those who speak them?

What do you think? Is lying to get elected okay? Is deception as part of negotiation? Where do you draw the line? And how do you know?