Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Mind-Body problem

The Feb 12th New Yorker has a fascinating article on the Mind-Body problem. I guess I like it because it seems to articulate beliefs that I've held for a while, but really was not able to defend due to my lack of formal education and knowledge in that discipline.

A couple of highlights... The first is that a sound neurological and physiological understanding of the brain and nervous system is critical in building a foundation for understanding the mind. We are in the infancy stage of this branch of medicine and science. However, there is nothing that leads me to think that a steady advance in understanding the brain is bound to result in some dead end. One key point the article makes is that we may not be capable of understanding the solution even if it were presented to us.

"Suppose you're a medieval physicist wondering about the burning of wood", Pat likes to say in her classes. "You're Albertus Magnus, let's say. One night, a Martian comes down and whispers, 'Hey, Albertus, the burning of wood is really rapid oxidation!' What could he do? He knows no structural chemistry, he doesn't know what oxygen is, he doesn't know what an element is - he couldn't make any sense of it. And if some fine night that same omniscient Martian came down and said, 'Hey Pat, consciousness is really blesjeakahgjfdl!' I would be similarly confused, because neuroscience is just not far enough along."

Here's another interesting quote:

In the classical era, there had been no separation between philosophy and science, and most of the men whom people now thought of as philosophers were scientists, too. They were thought of as philosphers now only because their scientific theories (like Aristotle's ideas on astronomy or physics, for instance) had proved to be, in almost all cases, hopelessly wrong.

I will let the reader draw their own analogies.

Bittul Z'man

It wasn't until I discovered the J-Blogosphere that I became aware of how much mental energy is expended on arguing who is or is not a heretic vs a true believer. Maybe it is no different than people arguing in other forums about whether Macs are better than PCs, Windows is better than Linux, fluoride in the water is a Communist plot, Communism is better than Capitalism, et cetera, ad nauseum.

What is amazing to me is:

  • How much time people waste arguing this stuff, really for no benefit what so ever. Go read a book, or study some Torah, or cure cancer, for Pete's sake instead of going over and over the same ground for an eternity.
  • How little self awareness people have that their arguments are completely non-effective, especially in this type of forum, which just doesn't lend itself to a discussion at this level.
  • How addictive these arguments can be. By the time you're done reading it, there is an irresistible compulsion to join the fray.
I am formally resolving to not spend any time reading these threads from this point on.


Some of these discussions, e.g. on XGH's blog, though pointless in themselves, will sometimes reference a link or a concept which upon further research is thought provoking and interesting. To what degree does the benefit of discovering such gems negate the overall negative aspects of following the debate, as mentioned in the original post?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


A man thought that when he lost a game of chess, he failed.

After having studied two years with a famous teacher of Zen, he had understood that he failed if he had won.

Still unsatisfied, he studied a year and a half with the great Sufi saint Narsufin and found out that if he had lost, but was happy with the loss, he failed.

Then he set off for three years to the Himalayas and learned from the great Yogi Maharashi that if he had won, but feels guilty because of it, then he failed.

And then his friends gave him the "Encyclopedia of Chess Openings" and he learned, finally, to develop his pawns.


Saturday, February 24, 2007


Thursday, February 22, 2007

German Lovesongs, Vichy flashbacks, and Der Pariser Tango

Those who want to forget what Europe was like in the 70's should not click on this link to a performance of the 'Pariser Tango' by the incomparable Mireille Mathieu. I don't know why this song resonates so weirdly with me. When I hear the German lyrics:
die Nacht ist blau und süß der Wein
wir tanzen in das Glück hinein

I imagine German officers partying it up in occupied Paris...

Here are the rest the lyrics...

Das ist der Pariser Tango, Monsieur
ganz Paris tanzt diesen Tango, Monsieur
und ich zeige ihnen gern diesen Schritt
denn ich weiß sie machen mit.

Tango, Pariser Tango
ich schenke dir mein Herz beim Tango
die Nacht ist blau und süß der Wein
wir tanzen in das Glück hinein bei diesem Tango.

Tango, Pariser Tango
Ich wünsche mir es bleibt noch lang so
ein Leben lang so schön wie heut'
mit dir und mir für alle Zeit.

In einem kleinen Cafe
nah bei den Champs Elysees
da spielt Robert schon seit Jahren Schlager
die nie welche waren.

Er hat sie selber gemacht
aber man hat nur gelacht
dann spielte er ein Lied
und es geschah ein Wunder:
Das ist der Pariser Tango:

Bei einem Tango, Pariser Tango
ich schenke dir mein Herz beim Tango
die Nacht ist blau und süß der Wein
wir tanzen in das Glück hinein bei diesem Tango.

Tango, Pariser Tango
Ich wünsche mir es bleibt noch lang so
ein Leben lang so schön wie heut'
mit dir und mir für alle Zeit.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

If I have more daughters...

I will name them Apophenia and Pareidolia... (bli neder)

Bris Milah

Steg, of BoroparkPyro, writes:
To me, berit mila is the opposite — a more primal, 'primitive', physical form of connecting to the Divine. We literally sacrifice a piece of ourselves and our children, performing the most miniscule echo of human sacrifice.
I don't know why so many people associate circumcision with sacrifices. It seems to me that it is a lot more akin to the scarification and tattooing practices, as well as circumcision, that are still found in many more primitive cultures. In many cultures these body modifications are done as a right of passage or as an initiation into the group.

Buying the right vote

There's an article in this month's Atlantic about a really wealthy gay businessman who has set up a way for wealthy gay donors to send donations to candidates across the country that are running against those with anti-gay agendas. The theory is that you want to stop these people from becoming the next Rick Santorum.

I don't know- something just feels wrong about this. For one thing, does this become an arms race - what if some anti-gay philanthropist decides that he will organize a more effective campaign... But also, this just ties elections to money in such a direct way, it feels un-democratic. Now I am not naive enough that I don't believe that money controls politics anyway, but this seems like really flaunting it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Randomness vs Predictability

Tanya Wikipedia:

Randomness versus unpredictability

Randomness is an objective property. Nevertheless, what appears random to one observer may not appear random to another observer. Consider two observers of a sequence of bits, only one of which who has the cryptographic key needed to turn the sequence of bits into a readable message. The message is not random, but is for one of the observers unpredictable.

One of the intriguing aspects of random processes is that it is hard to know whether the process is truly random. The observer can always suspect that there is some "key" that unlocks the message. This is one of the foundations of superstition.

Under the cosmological hypothesis of determinism there is no randomness in the universe, only unpredictability.

Some mathematically defined sequences exhibit some of the same characteristics as random sequences, but because they are generated by a describable mechanism they are called pseudo-random. To an observer who does not know the mechanism, the pseudo-random sequence is unpredictable.

Chaotic systems are unpredictable in practice due to their extreme dependence on initial conditions. Whether or not they are unpredictable in terms of computability theory is a subject of current research. At least in some disciplines of computability theory the notion of randomness turns out to be identified with computational unpredictability.

It is important to remember that the randomness of a phenomenon is not itself random and can often be precisely characterized, usually in terms of probability or expected value. For instance quantum mechanics allows a very precise calculation of the half-lives of atoms even though the process of atomic decay is a random one. More simply, though we cannot predict the outcome of a single toss of a fair coin, we can characterize its general behavior by saying that if a large number of tosses are made, roughly half of them will show up "Heads". Ohm's law and the kinetic theory of gases are precise characterizations of macroscopic phenomena which are random on the microscopic level.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

I think I'm in love...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Corporeality of G-d

I've been thinking about the idea of corporeality of G-d (or lack thereof). It seems that there were a substantial set of rabbis who believed in some form of divine corporeality. The Rambam called them heretics, but I am not sure whether other rabbis (especially in Ashkenaz) were as harsh to condemn this belief wholesale.

It is interesting to me because I believe that the school of belief that G-d is incorporeal seems to have arrived at this assumption through reasoning and logic, though in many ways the more literal reading of the Tanach would certainly leave the door open for a corporeal Deity. In other words, G-d seems to walk through the garden of Eden, G-d speaks from a cloud, G-d descends down to Mt Sinai, etc... Yet, the rationalist side argued that by definition, G-d cannot be corporeal. But this really seems to be applying our own ideas about what G-d can and cannot be to the text. In many ways this leads to the crux of the matter, which is: is the human mind capable of discerning whether a particular system of logic is 'bulletproof' and therefore leads to an indisputably 'true' conclusion?

Those of us in computer science and mathematics related fields know how far away we are from being able to conclusively logically prove anything non-trivial. As the famous computer scientist Donald Knuth wrote in a memo, "Beware of bugs in the above code. I've only proven it correct, not tested it!"

Death Cab for Cutie

Listen to the lyrics...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Foreign Lyrics Day

I was reading this blog when I thought of these lyrics...

Olha que coisa mais linda,
Mais cheia de graça.
É ela a menina que vem e que passa,
num doce balanço a caminho do mar.
Moça do corpo dourado do sol de Ipanema,
O seu balançado émais que um poema,
Éa coisa mais linda que eu já vi passar.

Ah, por que estou tão sozinho?
Ah, por que tudo é tão triste?
Ah, a beleza que existe,
A beleza que não é só minha,
Que também passa sozinha.

Ah, se ela soubesse
Que, quando ela passa,
O mundo inteirinho se enche de graça
E fica mais lindo por causa do amor.

And I was reading this blog when I thought of these lyrics...

Mit kersek, en itt? Azt mondjok, hogy a hires lakem lefogta a ferjemet en meg
lecsaptam a fejet. De nem igaz, en artatlan
vagyok. Nem tudom mert mondja
Uncle Sam hogy en tettem. Probaltam
a rendorsegen megmayarazni de nem ertettek meg...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Rabbi Reefer Madness

So as part of a discussion about kids and drugs, our Rabbi mentioned that a member of our congregation offered him drugs.

You see it in the headlines, you hear it every day
They say they're gonna stop it, but it doesn't go away
They move it through Miami and sell it in LA
They hide it up in Telluride, I mean it's here to stay
It's propping up the governments in Columbia and Peru
You ask any DEA man, they'll say there's nothing we can do
From the office of the president right down to me and you