Monday, March 31, 2014

Life In Our Cities

Urban Planning


“In great cities, spaces as well as places are designed and built: walking, witnessing, being in public, are as much part of the design and purpose as is being inside to eat, sleep, make shoes or love or music. The word citizen has to do with cities, and the ideal city is organized around citizenship—around participation in public life.”
Rebecca Solnit,
Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000)


“It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things do work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give. If so, there is little hope for our cities or probably for much else in our society. But I do not think this is so. ”
Jane Jacobs
The Death And Life of Great American Cities (1961)


The Circular City: Such is the modern city proposed by the Venus Project; its design is circular rather than grid-like, common to many cities today. The Venus Project is based in Venus, Florida.
Source & Credit: The Venus Project

Few cities in the world represent this ideal, a city designed and built for human habitation, which includes short distances between streets, lots of public green space and public gardens and various types of private businesses and residential housing. It also includes buildings that capture the eye, are aesthetically pleasing and are not filled with rows of similar-looking office towers and condos.

The downtown core remains the key, the essential element of what this city stands for, giving it character instead of looking the same as other cities of similar size. Today, however, what we view in the downtown core, which gives a city its defining sense, are constructions composed chiefly of concrete, steel and glass, with very little organic or green space for human habitation. If there is green space, it is a small lot with some grass and a few trees and benches, as if it were quickly thrown together as an unplanned after-thought, which is more than likely the case.

In addition, a great city needs a great and vibrant downtown core where people can congregate freely and walk around; this means no cars or motorcycles or other powered vehicles; a high-speed train would bring in people from the suburbs and other outlying areas.

Such is an ideal, but then there is the reality of city life for most urban dwellers and visitors. Our cities need changing; many were designed more than a century ago and could not account for modern life, and our views on sustainability and environmental stewardship or conservation. Many cities lack sufficient green space, are designed for maximum use of space without any consideration for human habitation, resulting in congestion, air pollution and crowded living. 

For example, in Toronto where I currently reside, you see rows of condos lining (or littering) the major highways that cuts through the city; it is not an appealing or aesthetically pleasing sight. Perhaps it is too late for Toronto, but there is hope that new cities will not have to meet this old model, but a modern one with modern ideas of living, sustainability and beauty incorporated into their very design. The Venus Project, for example, which proposes a new socio-economic model for society, has such a vision on how we can live better more healthy lives.

Its visionary is Jacque Fresco; on its website, it says:
It would be far easier and would require less energy to build new, efficient cities than to attempt to update and solve the problems of the old ones. The Venus Project proposes a Research City that would use the most sophisticated available resources and construction techniques. Its geometrically elegant and efficient circular arrangement will be surrounded by, and incorporated into the city design, parks and lovely gardens. This city will be designed to operate with the minimum expenditure of energy using the cleanest technology available, which will be in harmony with nature to obtain the highest possible standard of living for everyone. This system facilitates efficient transportation for city residents, eliminating the need for automobiles.
The Venus Project's Circular City arrangement is comprised of the following:
1.The central dome or theme center will house the core of the cybernated system, educational facilities, access center, computerized communications, networking systems, health and child care facilities.
2. The buildings surrounding the central dome provide the community with centers for cultural activities such as the arts, theater, exhibitions, concerts, access centers, and various forms of entertainment.
3. Next is the design and development complex for this research and planning city. The design centers are beautifully landscaped in natural surroundings.
4. Adjacent the research facilities are dining and other amenities.
5. The eight residential districts have a variety of free form unique architecture to fulfil the various needs of the occupant. Each home is immersed in lovely gardens isolating one from another with lush landscaping.
6. Areas are set aside for renewable clean sources of energy such as wind generators, solar, heat concentrating systems, geothermal, photovoltaic and others.
7. Next are the indoor hydroponic facilities and outdoor agricultural belts which will be used to grow a wide variety of organic plants without the use of pesticides
8. A circular waterway for irrigation and filtration surrounds the agricultural belt.
9. The outermost perimeter is utilized for recreational activities such as biking, golfing, hiking and riding, etc.
All the facilities are available to everyone without cost in a resource based economy. The sole purpose of this sophisticated technology is to free people from boring monotonous tasks, make available a much higher standard of living, and provide more leisure time.
With an opportunity for constant growth and achievement people could have the time and freedom to choose the lifestyle they find most fulfilling. The city is designed to serve the needs of every member of society.
I can hear the objections already from the naysayers; this is understandable and this is what often happens when a new idea is put forth. I look forward to a new model city, and to its becoming a norm. I might not live to see this day, but I sense that my children and their children will, and benefit from such visionaries as Jacque Fresco.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Synesthesia & Technology

The Human Mind


Anticipating 1960s Pop Art: “An Aspiration to Enfold All”
Source: PubDomain

An article, by Benjamin Breen, in the Public Domain Review looks at the Victorian's understanding of the relationship between art and spirituality and between art and technology; and in all this musings the role and influence of synesthesia , a neurological condition affecting approximately four percent of the population where the simulation of one sense produces experience in another sense, for example, some individuals can taste or feel colours. It is often the case that people with synesthesia associate sounds with colours; is it possible that such individuals might be the keys to understanding and unlocking the human mind, which has yet to reveal all of its secrets.

During the Victorian era, there were many efforts to understand the emerging and domineering  role of technology in light of human spirituality and mysticism, to give magic or some secret esoteric knowledge instead of hard science some room in human imagination and thinking.

Today, science would explain synesthesia in terms of a neurological condition, and scoff at anything to do with occult, mysticism or the writings and musings of theosophy, a philosophical system of belief in hidden knowledge. Yet, its influences are ever-present among many of our notable artists. For example, Kandinsky was greatly influenced by theosophy and the views of Madame Blavatsky, who also adopted eastern esotericism into her general beliefs. Yeats, the great Irish poet, was another notable greatly influenced by Madame Blavatsky.

Breen begins the essay by quoting Yeats:
“II have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance — the revolt of the soul against the intellect — now beginning in the world,” wrote William Butler Yeats to his mentor, the Irish nationalist John O’Leary, in 1892. Yeats believed that magic was central not only to his art, but to a dawning epoch when spirituality and technology would march together toward an uncertain future.
Thought-Forms, a strange, beguiling, frequently pretentious, utterly original book first published in 1901, emerged from this ferment of late-Victorian mysticism. It was written by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, erstwhile members of the London Theosophical Society alongside Yeats, and it features a stunning sequence of images that illustrate the book’s central argument: emotions, sounds, ideas and events manifest as visual auras.
The book’s grand ambitions are evident from the first page. “To paint in earth’s dull colours the forms clothed in the living light of other worlds,” Besant laments, “is a hard and thankless task.” She insists that the images in the book “are not imaginary forms, prepared as some dreamer thinks that they ought to appear.” Rather, “they are representations of forms actually observed as thrown off by ordinary men and women.” And she hopes that they will make the reader “realise the nature and power of his thoughts, acting as a stimulus to the noble, a curb on the base.” This grandiloquence was typical: fin de siècle occult leaders produced some of the most baroque writing in literary history, the purplest of purple prose.
Yet what are we saying, exactly, when we call black words on a white page “purple”?
These sorts of underlying associations between words, colors and sounds were precisely what motivated Thought-Forms. In other words, the book was about synesthesia. The illustration of the music of Mendelssohn reproduced above, for instance, depicts yellow, red, blue and green lines rising out of a church. This, Leadbeater and Besant explain, “signifies the movement of one of the parts of the melody, the four moving approximately together denoting the treble, alto, tenor and bass respectively.” Moreover, “the scalloped edging surrounding the whole is the result of various flourishes and arpeggios, and the floating crescents in the centre represent isolated or staccato chords.” Color and sound had become commingled.
Such ideas never really die; they take on life in new forms, consistent with the technologies of the day; this is one reason why it is important to understand its history and its imprint on the human mind and imagination. I consider both science and art as necessary for humans, and value them both. Science is necessary and important to answer questions that science is best suited to answer, as is art; which not so much answers questions, but channels them into the beautiful and inspiring music, poetry, paintings and literary masterpieces that speak to all of humanity.

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You can read the rest of the article at [PubDomain]
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Friday, March 28, 2014

For Love Of Money

Social Ills

"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retired back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925), Ib.9

"The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease."
John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion (1931), pt. V


I Need More: One of the chief obstacles to treatment of hoarding of money in its various forms as a mental illness is that accumulation of wealth is considered perfectly normal and acceptable under market capitalism. "People who hoard often don't see it as a problem, making treatment challenging," the Mayo Clinic says.
Credit & Source: The Unbounded Spirit


Hoarding is classified as a mental illness; and its effects are evident to see if one has the opportunity to visit someone who suffers this illness; such individuals collect and store items in their houses to the point that they are eventually trapped by the possession they have collected. The items have no use, no purpose for the hoarder, other than being in their possession.

The Mayo Clinic's definition of hoarding follows this line of thinking and is as follows:
Hoarding is the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. Hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter. Some people also collect animals, keeping dozens or hundreds of pets often in unsanitary conditions.
Hoarding, also called compulsive hoarding and compulsive hoarding syndrome, may be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But many people who hoard don't have other OCD-related symptoms.
People who hoard often don't see it as a problem, making treatment challenging. But intensive treatment can help people who hoard understand their compulsions and live safer, more enjoyable lives.
Then there are the hoarders of money, accumulating wealth for no discernible purpose, no different than the hoarder of items who drowns under the accumulated weight of her possessions. The only difference, in my view, is that the billionaire's habits are considered normal and even preferable in our market-capitalist economy, while that of the housewife is considered a mental aberration. Money confers, it seems, a high degree of immunity from public scorn and public scrutiny.

Yet, the hoarders of money have a far worse mental illness, in that it harms not so much themselves, but chiefly the many others outside their eccentric orbit, in that the super-wealthy move through our planet with apparent impunity, "smashing up things," as Fitzgerald notes, and expecting others to "clean up the mess." That this shows definite signs of socio-pathic behaviour is clear, as one B. Lester has eloquently pointed out:
If a man has an apartment stacked to the ceiling with newspapers we call him crazy. If a woman has a trailer house full of cats we call her nuts. But when people pathologically hoard so much cash that they impoverish the entire nation, we put them on the cover of Fortune magazine and pretend that they are role models. 
And other business magazines. Yet, it is precisely such individuals who use their mental illness to become super-wealthy, who influence our economic systems and who have a high degree of power that affects the lives and livlihoods of those who are dependent on their favour, which essentially is providing well-paying jobs. This is often not the case, since today's cohort of oligarchs tend to view their purpose in life as accumulation and acquisition. Lack of empathy and compassion inures these ones to people's personal misfortunes; such social misfits view the vast majority of people who have not "made it" as weak and inferior, and thus explaining both the contempt and arrogance.

But these men (and it is mostly men) do not view money for what its purposes chiefly are—as a tool to purchase goods and services, or as a means to invest in job-creating businesses, which has net social benefit—but as Keynes says, "a possession." Well, powerful people guard their possessions with jealousy, similar to the known views of the god of the Jewish Torah, what Christians call the Old Testament.

It might well be that the money hoarders view themselves as deities, or would-be deities, if only they could get to the top of the money pyramid and be no. 1, and have billions in their possession. And what to do with this money; well, accumulate more.

Cui bono? The answer is painfully clear; and for what purpose the hoards of money? To have and to hold, it seems; to have and to hold.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Morality In China

On Belief



Chinese Christians at a Christmas Eve services at the Xuanwumen Catholic Church, Beijing,
December 24, 2012.
Photo Credit: How Hwee Young; epa Corbis
Source: NYRB

An article ("Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong"), by Ian Johnson, in the New York Review of Books examines the latest poll results, conducted by the  Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, on faith and morality, chiefly whether belief in God is a requirement for human morality. Johnson focuses his attention on China, and says that a poorly worded question explains why the numbers don't add up to previous research findings. In many ways, he argues that religious belief, chiefly in the form of a supreme deity, is increasing in China.

Johnson writes:
Earlier this month, I came across a fascinating opinion survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The report asked people in forty countries whether belief in God is necessary for morality. Mostly, the results aren’t surprising. In advanced democracies, such as those in Western Europe, people say by at least a two-to-one margin that morality is not linked to belief in God—presumably, they think non-believers in God can be moral. In the developing world, the opposite is the case, with citizens of Muslim and poorer Catholic countries overwhelmingly saying the two are linked. And as might be expected, the United States is an outlier among developed countries, with a majority (53 percent) asserting the necessity of belief in God to anchor morality.
But then there is China, which at 14 percent has the lowest percentage affirming the need for belief in God of any country surveyed—even lower than in the secular democracies of Western Europe. It’s especially striking when compared to other Asian countries, such as Japan, where 42 percent of the population links morality to belief in God, and South Korea, where more than half the population asserts such a link. In fact, according to the Pew data, a full 75 percent of Chinese people say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.
Pew doesn’t explain its findings, but they struck me as extremely odd. If there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing desire among many Chinese to find some sort of moral foundation in their lives, whether by reengaging with age-old Chinese ethical traditions, or by taking part in organized religions. In view of this widely-documented situation, how can so few Chinese believe in the link between morality and a supreme being or force?
It is true that it is popular among some Western commentators to discount the importance of religion in both Imperial and Communist China. As late as the 1960s, informed people argued that religion wasn’t important in Chinese society. This reflected the fact that the West’s initial encounters with China had been through its elite, who, in the later imperial era, and especially in the Republican and Communist periods, denied the importance of religion in Chinese society and history. The argument was that China didn’t have real religions, only superstitious folk practices that didn’t rise to the level of the world’s great global belief systems. Most Chinese were not religious and morality was instilled primarily through Confucianism, which was incorrectly presented as a secular tradition.
But these assumptions have long been discredited by scholars. A landmark was the 1961 publication of Religion in Chinese Society by the University of Pittsburgh academic C.K. Yang. As Yang put it, religion in traditional China was “diffused” in society. There were hierarchically organized religious organizations (especially in Buddhism and parts of Daoism) but mostly, Chinese religious practice was part of daily life and organized by lay people. This didn’t make Chinese people unreligious; it was just that religiosity in China was different from that in other countries, especially civilizations dominated by the Abrahamic faiths. In fact, religiosity was so much a part of Chinese society that China has been described by the Sinologist John Lagerwey as a religious state—from the emperor to the peasant. The idea that morality and belief in higher forces could be separated—the premise of the Pew poll—would have struck people of traditional China as inconceivable.
So, why the differences in interpretation? As always, it's important to look at the question and see how it is understood in the nation to which it is being addressed. Cultural meanings are important.

Johnson writes:
So I wrote to Pew and also called Horizonkey, the Chinese company that carried out the survey. It turned out that the question had in fact been formulated in precisely that very narrow way. I don’t know how the question was translated for other countries (especially Japan or India), but in Chinese, the question used a term for “God” that is applicable in modern China almost only to Protestant Christianity: shangdi (上帝).
In Chinese, the questions were: “不信仰上帝,也能有良好的道德和价值” and “为了有良好的道德和价值观,信仰上帝是必要的.” I would translate these questions back into English as “Even without believing in (the Protestant) God, one can still have good virtues or values” and “In order to have good virtues and values, one must believe in (the Protestant) God.”
Such is a valid explanation, and even with a question that could have been written better, it still suggests that at 14 percent, close to 200 million Chinese believe in a Christian-like God as basis for morality. The figure could be higher for a better worded question that bases morality on some deity figure that is apart from the Abrahamic faiths.

As for the reasons for such a high number of "believers," in a supreme deity, it might have everything to do with individuals searching for meaning in a nation that is rife with corruption, as a way to put some order into their lives. It would be interesting to know how the results added up between those in the cities and the countryside, between those highly educated and not, between those with scientific education and those with not.

Equally worth considering is this: Could there also be a correlation between capitalism and Christianity, namely, has the introduction of economic capitalism led to an increase in individuals claiming the Christian faith? That those hundreds of millions who have been left behind are now looking to religion as a compensatory or an ameliorating balm?

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You can read more at [NYRB]

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Passionate Madness Of Extremes

Political Nonsense

Bertrand Russell wrote in Sceptical Essays (1928): "The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately."

If there is any doubt that we are living in extreme times, viewing the politics of the political left and the political right will reassure you, if this is indeed the correct word, that you are not delusional. It is a mad, mad world. Prof. George Jochnowitz writes about his nation, the United States, but it can apply to many others: "Obamacare, as I said above, is a wishy-washy plan. Israel, on the other hand, is a country with a population of human beings. Israel’s existence is a much more important question than Obamacare. But the extremism of the Left and the Right on these questions is equal. Extremism is madness."


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by George Jochnowitz


For Rightists in the United States, Obamacare takes precedence over every other question. For Leftists, Israel is the issue that supersedes all others. In both cases, this makes no sense.

Obamacare is a wishy-washy step in the direction of extending Medicare to people below the age of 65. Medicare is hardly a controversial issue nowadays, and even when it was brand new, it was not especially opposed by conservatives. Senior citizens are typically grateful to have Medicare. So are their younger relatives.

Medicare is a form of socialized medicine. It is not the only one. If there is an accident, or if someone on the street suffers a heart attack or a stroke, an ambulance will take patients to the hospital, where they will be treated even if there is no time to locate their identification. When they get better, they can pay their bills or call their insurance companies. If they have no money and no insurance, they have simply received free medical care.

Saving lives is moral. Helping sick people get better is moral. The argument against using government money to cure illness makes sense only if one is a libertarian. The libertarian position, if taken to its logical conclusion, would do away with police and fire departments, since individuals could sign up with private police of fire fighters who could protect those who were their customers. Although I don’t agree with that position, I recognize its internal consistency and its relationship to opposition to any kind of government medical care.

Very few Republicans oppose government funding of police and fire departments. Nevertheless, they embrace the libertarian position of not allowing the government to help sick people with tax money—money they believe was stolen by the government from unwilling citizens. Whenever some aspect of Obamacare doesn’t work, Republicans cheer. Opposing Obamacare is the number-one Republican issue. Conservatives have joined ultra-Rightists on this question.

Israel is a small country that should not logically be the center of the world’s attention. It is true that Palestinian women are less likely than Jewish women in Israel to become doctors. On the other hand, Arab women in the Middle East are more likely to become doctors in Israel than in any other country—by far.

It is true that Palestinians do not have a state of their own. The Arab world rejected such a state when the U.N. voted to partition Palestine in 1947.They did so again with the Three No’s of Khartoum in 1967. Arafat rejected an independent state at Taba in 2001 after President Clinton had negotiated an agreement with Israel. Gaza rejected the idea of an independent Palestine after Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2005, giving them a de facto state. Hamas is rejected the idea of joining with an independent "West Bank" every time it sends rockets aimed at civilians into Israel—rockets that in effect bear the message: If the West Bank is independent, rockets aimed at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will be much more effective than those sent from Gaza.

For leftists, Israel is the world’s number-one villain. The BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) Movement began in 2005, when Israel announced it would withdraw from Gaza. Syrians are being killed in great numbers in the civil war that is taking place there. The Left has little to say. Iraqis blow up other Iraqis of different denominations frequently in marketplaces and mosques in Iraq. The Left has nothing to say.

Homosexuals are hanged in Iran. The Left has nothing to say.

The Saudi religious police prevented firemen from rescuing students at a girls’ school. The Left had nothing to say.

How can the Left talk about murders, executions, gay rights and women’s rights at a time when Israel exists but when there is no independent Palestine? After all, discussing these questions might make Israel look less bad.

Obamacare, as I said above, is a wishy-washy plan. Israel, on the other hand, is a country with a population of human beings. Israel’s existence is a much more important question than Obamacare. But the extremism of the Left and the Right on these questions is equal.

Extremism is madness.

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George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

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Copyright ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article originally appeared in Arutz Sheva (March 14, 2014) and in the algemeiner (March 19, 2014)  It is republished here with the permission of the author.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Weak Labour Movement Increases Inequality

The Working Class



Workers Unite: "Workers celebrate the end of the Flint sit-down strike, February 11, 1937,"
the article notes.
Source: Dissent

An article, by Colin Gordon, in Dissent magazine lays out a brief history of the labour movement in the United States, and how its decline has led to increasing economic and social inequalities.

Gordon writes:
The decline of the American labor movement is—for a number of reasons—a pretty good marker for the broader dismantling of the New Deal and, therefore, for the political roots of inequality in the United States. Union losses, as we shall see, account in no small part for rising inequality, especially for men and especially in the 1970s and ’80s. These losses, in turn, have shaped the political environment: midcentury unions, representing a third of the private workforce, fought and won battles over trade, workplace safety, social policy, and civil rights; with union membership at 6.7 percent in the private labor force (2013), those battles (let alone any victories) are growing rarer and rarer.
Union decline has also fed inequality because, in the American context, so much is at stake at the bargaining table. In settings where union coverage is even and expansive, and where workers (and employers) can count on a decent minimum wage and universal health and retirement benefits, the stakes of collective bargaining in the private sector are relatively low. In the United States, by contrast, economic security is shackled to private job-based benefits, and uneven patterns of union coverage have always made it harder to organize bottom-feeding regions and firms. Employer and political opposition, in this respect, is fierce not because the labor movement is strong, but because it has never been strong enough to to socialize job-based benefits or to take wages out of competition.

A Short History of American Labor Policy
The American labor movement began the twentieth century claiming coverage of about 10 percent of the labor force, almost all of it (under the mantle of the American Federation of Labor) confined to skilled crafts and trades. An acute labor shortage during World War I pushed that number up to nearly 20 percent by the war’s end, but then employers took the gloves off. The anti-union drives of the 1920s rolled back most of those gains, restoring a pattern of insecurity and low wages (cushioned slightly by employer paternalism).
The arrival of the Great Depression—and with it, unemployment rates pushing 25 percent—brought dramatic change. Workers, with little left to lose, launched a series of dramatic organizing drives—first, in response to economic woes, and then under the legal protection for collective bargaining promised by the National Recovery Act (1933-1935) and delivered by the National Labor Relations Act (1935).
Just as importantly, New Dealers and progressive business interests came to view the economic crisis, and its persistence, as a consequence of weak aggregate demand in an economy organized around low wages. The new labor relations compact, in this respect, was essentially a recovery strategy—a way of using union power (after the Supreme Court abandoned the New Deal’s brief flirtation with industrial policy) to put money in the pockets of workers (as consumers). This was the culmination of Henry Ford’s effort—floated to much fanfare in 1914 but abandoned soon after—of bridging the gap between mass production and mass consumption by “making 20,000 men prosperous and contented rather than following the plan of making a few slave-drivers in our establishment multi-millionaires.” The combination of democratic workplace institutions, a legal framework for collective bargaining, and dramatic organizing gains presented—in this sense—both a new challenge for employers and, at least for some of them, a way of solving the challenges they already faced.
The New Left has all but abandoned the labour movement and in doing so has abandoned the ideas and ideals of liberalism and workers' social and economic rights, thus weakening its position and that of liberalism in American politics. While the Left has become all things for all peoples, and many (but not all) of its stances and ideas are good, it does not generally represent worker interests as it used to do.

If the Left would concentrate its diminishing energies on economic rights and the ideas of the social contract, it might eventually become a moral force with which to reckon. Its chief goal ought to be as a countervailing force against corporate excesses, Gordon writes: "More broadly, the decline of both public and private sector unions means the decline of one of the most potent political forces of the last century, and along with it, support for a wide range of public policies that might sustain working families and check corporate power."

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You can read the rest of the article at [Dissent].


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Steven Pinker's Full Slate Of Scientific Ideas

The Human Mind

In this essay, George Jochnowitz reviews a book that was published more than a decade ago, and yet it still causes controversy today among some social scientists. Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate gets to the point quickly, namely, that the human mind has a structure, that genetics plays an important role, and that the human mind is not a tabula rasa, or blank slate, where only environment plays a role. Prof. Jochnowitz writes: "Pinker is a Darwinian and writes that "differences in intelligence, scientific genius, sexual orientation, and impulsive violence are not entirely learned" (44). Instead, genes play a major role in who we are. Genes also determine the fact that we have cultures. 'Bands, clans, tribes, and other social groups are central to human existence and have been so for as long as we have been a species' (285). Cultures are not genetic, although they may be inherited. What is genetic is the fact that people live in groups, form societies, and build on the experiences of those societies."




The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
by Steven Pinker. Viking, New York, 2002, 509 + xvi pages, $27.95.

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by George Jochnowitz


Steven Pinker defines "Blank Slate" early in his book: It is "the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves" (2). He begins his last chapter by saying, "The Blank Slate was an attractive vision" (421). But it was a false vision. Those who believe human nature can and should be changed, logically, don't like human beings the way they are. In order to change humanity, says Pinker, tyrants—and even parents—have introduced totalitarianism into the world. Echoing Hannah Arendt, Pinker reminds us that totalitarians can exist on the left and the right: "Nazism and Marxism shared a desire to reshape humanity" (157). We must add, however, that the Nazis did not believe in the Blank Slate. They did not feel Jews could be reshaped. They had to be killed.

Steven Pinker has written about language, the mind, and the ability to learn. His earlier books were technical and educational in their basic thrust. So is The Blank Slate. But it is something else as well. It is polemical. Because it is about politics as well as science, it is the most interesting and controversial of Pinker's books. In my opinion, that makes it his best effort thus far.

Pinker is a Darwinian and writes that "differences in intelligence, scientific genius, sexual orientation, and impulsive violence are not entirely learned" (44). Instead, genes play a major role in who we are. Genes also determine the fact that we have cultures. "Bands, clans, tribes, and other social groups are central to human existence and have been so for as long as we have been a species" (285). Cultures are not genetic, although they may be inherited. What is genetic is the fact that people live in groups, form societies, and build on the experiences of those societies.

All cultures are different. Just as some people are more intelligent than others, "some cultures are more successful than others" (67). At the same time, all are alike in a number of ways. For example, "People in all cultures take pleasure in thinking about killings, if we are to judge by the popularity of murder mysteries, crime dramas, spy thrillers, Shakespearean tragedies, biblical stories, hero myths, and epic poems....People also enjoy watching the stylized combat we call 'sports'" (317). And in all cultures, there is division of labor between men and women, "even in a culture where everyone had been committed to stamping it out, the Israeli kibbutz" (346).

In an earlier book, The Language Instinct, Pinker tells us that human beings are programmed to learn to speak. He asks the important question, "Why aren't babies born talking?" (The Language Instinct, 288). He conjectures that the answer has to do with brain size and other developmental factors. He seems to be missing a connection with the role of evolution in culture, one of his important themes. He doesn't relate linguistic and cultural evolution, despite the fact that in The Blank Slate, he reminds us that "every language, far from being an immutable penitentiary, is constantly under renovation" (210). Pinker believes that evolution is extremely important. He points out that "slavery, punishment by mutilation,... infanticide as a form of birth control, and the legal ownership of women has vanished from large parts of the world" (166).

If the development of cultures is part of the genetic heritage of human beings, and if these cultures are going to change and perhaps even improve, of course language has to change. New cultures, new inventions, new knowledge—all of these require new words. If we were born speaking, there would be no way for languages to develop. And develop they must.

I am a professor emeritus of linguistics. I was disappointed not to find something in the book I care about very much. Nowhere does Pinker link the idea of cultural development with the idea of linguistic change.

Linguistic change is inherent in the fact that language is learned, that we are not born speaking any particular language. Furthermore, linguistic development is a prerequisite for human existence. We human beings have no fangs, claws or armor. We cannot run very fast. We have survived because it is natural for us to be unnatural—to invent and use tools, to develop specialized skills and consequently to divide labor, to do things that have not been done before and to communicate these innovations to our contemporaries and our posterity. Human language must be designed to produce sentences that have never been said before, which can happen because languages have processes to augment the lexicon and the grammar—because they are designed to change.

Pinker is a professor of cognitive science at MIT.* Noam Chomsky is an MIT professor of linguistics. Long before Pinker had introduced the term "Blank Slate," Chomsky wrote a courageous and extremely important review of B. F. Skinner's book Verbal Behavior. Skinner, a behaviorist and therefore a believer in the Blank Slate, argued in his book that language was learned through rewards and punishments—positive and negative reinforcement. Chomsky's review appeared in the journal Language in 1959, when he was not yet 31 and was not especially famous. Chomsky demolished Skinner's theory in a review that foreshadowed his career as a proponent of the theory that language is innate.

Pinker tells us that The Language Instinct was deeply influenced by Chomsky, who asserted that "children must be innately equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages, a Universal Grammar." (The Language Instinct, 22) That is why children can learn, and learn perfectly, something as vast and complicated as a language. Chomsky's argument has convinced linguists all over the world that we are designed to learn a language. Then Chomsky apparently went further. He wrote in his book New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2000) that human beings "have a stock of notions including "carburetor" and "bureaucrat"" (65).

Philosopher Jerry Fodor agrees with Chomsky on this point, suggesting that concepts like "doorknob" and "tweezers" are innate. (The Blank Slate, 35) At this point, I would have expected Pinker to point out that linguistic change is a prerequisite for human development, and that our ability to learn language exists because language is always changing. Bees, as far as we know, can tell other bees how far from the hive, at what angle from the sun, and at what angle from the ground they must go to find flowers in bloom. As far as we know, bees are born knowing bee language. Therefore, their language can't evolve to include new concepts like telling their fellow bees that the source of nectar is on a balcony on the fourth floor. Telling other bees the angle from the ground may be insufficient information when the flowers are on a part of a building constructed by humans.

Instead, Pinker talks about the size of a child's brain when asking and answering the question, cited above, "Why aren't babies born talking?" A book about linguistic change and cultural development should link these two examples of evolution. I sincerely hope Pinker will explore the subject at length in one of his future books. As my mother would have said, using a word-for-word translation of a Yiddish expression meaning "frequently," Pinker writes a new book "every Monday and Thursday." We need a new book to point out that Chomsky's statement about having built-in slots in our brains for "carburetor" and "bureaucrat" is a rejection of the idea that languages and cultures can change in any way that is not trivial. It is a dismissal of the entire field of historical linguistics, the area where linguists have shed more light than any other.

Pinker believes that the evolution of cultures is extremely important. He points out that "slavery, punishment by mutilation, ... infanticide as a form of birth control, and the legal ownership of women - have vanished from large parts of the world" (166). Cultures change more rapidly than living organisms do. Pinker's point is that humans are living creatures that are genetically programmed to produce evolving cultures. I sincerely hope that Pinker will explore the link between linguistic change and the evolution of culture in one of his future books.

Skinner's behaviorism is only one example of the fact that the Blank Slate is a theory that was widely accepted. Pinker also writes about a related view, which he calls the Noble Savage, the belief that it is culture that makes us bad. The writer most associated with advocating this position is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who lived long before Skinner and Karl Marx.

In addition to the Noble Savage, another idea is closely linked with the Blank Slate. Pinker calls it the Ghost in the Machine. It is, briefly, the idea that the body and soul are separate entities. Pinker links this view of humanity to the writings of René Descartes (1596-1650), who antedated Rousseau by more than a century. Indeed, one could argue that this theory lay behind the Inquisition, a century before Descartes. The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine are facets of the same understanding of humanity, says Pinker. They have been around for a long time, but people should have known that they were not true. Now that we have learned a great deal about DNA and the effects of genes on behavior, we have less reason than ever to accept the Blank Slate.

Although Pinker acknowledges Chomsky's influence in his writing about language and the mind, Pinker differs with Chomsky politically. Pinker is a liberal; Chomsky is a leftist. Pinker feels that leftists, like rightists, may engage in destructive behavior because they reject science in favor of dogma: "The belief on the left is that human nature can be changed at will, and the belief on the right is that morality rests on God's endowing us with an immaterial soul" (299). Chomsky, however, despite his political orientation, shares many ideas with Pinker concerning genetics and evolution. Chomsky, Pinker informs us, "has been the most vocal defender of an innate cognitive endowment" (300).

Pinker defends Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, authors of the extremely controversial book, The Bell Curve, a book that has been described as racist. Pinker points out that IQ testing "is the ultimate subverter of a caste society ruled by inbred upper-class twits" (301). He goes on to say, "If social justice consists of seeing to the well being of the worst off, then recognizing genetic differences calls for an active redistribution of wealth. Indeed, though Herrnstein was a conservative and Murray a right-leaning libertarian, they were not opposed to simple redistributive measures such as a negative income tax for the lowest wage earners, which would give a break to those who play by the rules but still can't scrape by" (302).

Pinker's belief in the well being of the worst off is welcome. But does he really believe that all differences in wealth are simply the result of genetic differences. At this point, he should raise the subject of inherited money.

The whole idea of IQ testing an college admissions masks a much greater problem. People take it for granted that the educated and skilled should be rich and respected. Opponents of testing have accepted the idea that everybody can and should be a lawyer—or some other type of professional. The world doesn't know that all occupations are necessary, all require special skills, and all are worthy of honor. It would be more realistic to try to change popular perceptions of some jobs as low status. The 9/11 terrorist attacks produced such a change , as firefighters and police officers were especially appreciated for a few months. IQ-shmIQ: There should be no such thing as a low-status profession.

Earlier, I cited Pinker as saying the kibbutz couldn't stamp out the existence of sex roles in jobs. The kibbutz, and all of Israeli society, had also tried to introduce the idea that all work is equally respectable. It failed. Israel now employs guest workers from Thailand and elsewhere to do the jobs that a Jewish mother wouldn't like her children to do.

I see one aspect of this issue daily. My mother-in-law needs round-the-clock care. The aides who do this work have to be trained to cope with the problems that arise. They work long hours and face a long commute home. Their jobs are hard and their salaries are low. Worse than that, nobody respects the profession. I don't know how the problem of respect, of appreciating the importance and difficulty of this work, can be solved. Unionization has helped workers in the past, but some occupations are hard to organize. Furthermore, salaries are based on appreciation. Movie stars are rich because they are appreciated.

Feminists, says Pinker, believe in the Blank Slate. Indeed, Bella Abzug denied the existence of differences between men and women and said that gender equality meant equal numbers of men and women in every field: "Fifty-fifty - absolutely" (353). Pinker, needless to say, disagrees. Just as differences in IQ should not interfere with efforts to end inequality, we should recognize that there is "no incompatibility between the principles of feminism and the possibility that men and women are not identical" (340). The way to work for a better society is through democracy: "Modern democracies never have famines, almost never wage war on one another, and are the top choice of people all over the world who vote with their feet or with their boats" (296).

I was particularly delighted by the chapter of the book entitled "The Arts." I have always felt that the Western music composed between 1600 and 1904 is the best music in the world, appreciated by people of any and every background who have a chance to listen to it and get to know it. When I go to concerts, I often have to listen to a 20th-century or even 21st-century work. Critics and programmers think they have to teach the audience to love modern music. Some difficult composers, those who wrote serial music, for example, are hardly modern; they composed almost a century ago. If the world prefers Weber to Webern, for example, we shouldn't have to listen to Webern until we love his music. We should recognize that Weber is simply better, as are Vivaldi, Verdi, and other 18th and 19th-century composers. I respect Pinker for having the courage and originality to say that he doesn't like having modern artistic creations forced on him.

Pinker blames the Blank Slate for his—and my—problem with 20th-century classical music: "Modernism and postmodernism cling to a theory of perception that was rejected long ago: that the sense organs present the brain with a tableau of colors and sounds and that everything else in perceptual experience is a learned social construction" (412).

When I was in college, I joined WKCR, the college radio station. While I was there, the station banned rock and roll music, the greatest music of the 20th century, in my opinion. This too was an example of Blank Slate thinking.

What one person calls courage and originality may appear to another as simply being nuts. Composers and other creative artists do act according to their inner needs to express what they feel they must. We can't blame the Blank Slate for modern music. Audiences, on the other hand, should have the right to avoid music they don't like. The scheduling of 20th-century works at concerts in order to educate the public is indeed an example of Blank-Slate thinking.

Pinker's views on raising children are his most controversial: "all those differences among parents and homes have no predictable effects on the personalities of their children. Not to put too fine a point on it, but much of the advice from parenting experts is flapdoodle" (384). The big reason for this as that the effect of the genes is more powerful than that of the environment. The second reason is that children are more influenced by their peers than their parents. "Do you sound like your parents, or like the people you grew up with," he asks (390).

You sound like the kids you grew up with, of course, especially if your parents were immigrants, as mine were. But in many ways I was like my parents and not my peers, as must be true for very many. I shared my parents' leftist politics and my parents' commitment to Zionism. I didn't learn until I was an adult that Zionism and leftism don't usually go together. During the election of 1948, most of my friends thought I was weird for supporting the candidacy of Henry Wallace. I didn't learn to oppose Marxism until I lived in China, first in 1984 and then in 1989, where I learned about the great Mao-made famine of 1959-61. Only then did I realize that Communism always leads to starvation, as happened with the kulaks in the USSR and is happening in North Korea today.

I don't think my experience was atypical. Parents have values, often religious or political, which they pass on to their children. Genes and peers matter, but so do parents. And, as Pinker says, "Childrearing is above all an ethical responsibility. It is not OK for parents to beat, humiliate, deprive, or neglect their children, because those are awful things for a big strong person to do to a small helpless one" (398). But Pinker doesn't go far enough. Although he cites data on adopted children and separated identical twins to illustrate the importance of genes, he should consider the fact that cruelty is not merely bad but destructive as well. He writes as if he had not heard of traumatic experiences.

I would like to venture a theory for which I have no concrete evidence. The richest and most productive cultures are those where there is little corporal punishment. In a community where parents regularly beat their children severely, poverty is the rule, to say nothing of violence.

No political philosophy has ever been more closely linked to the idea of the Blank Slate than Marxism. In a well-known statement in The German Ideology, Marx said, "In communist society, however, where nobody has an exclusive area of activity and each can train himself in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production, making it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I like, without ever becoming a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critic." This would be a lovely sentiment of it were true, but it couldn't possibly be true. All professions require special skills and knowledge, but more to the point, people are not all the same.

It was Karl Marx whose thinking led to regimes like those of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. It was Karl Marx who gave socialism a bad name. It is Marx's emphasis on economic systems that leads people today to say that prosperous countries are capitalist—a statement I have heard from Republicans in America and Communist Party members in China. The secret of the relative success of America and Western Europe is democracy, not capitalism. The world needs a new humanitarian theory, one that rejects the Blank Slate and celebrates human variety, including variety in political thinking, a theory that all professions and cultures deserve equal respect.

Although I hate Marx's analysis, I still preserve my parents' values, their concern for human welfare and their pride in being Jewish. I don't think my experience was atypical. Parents have values, often religious or political, which they pass on to their children. I changed my mind about Communism because I saw what it was, because I was in China at the time of the Tiananmen Massacre, and because my reading of Marx after living in China showed me that Chairman Mao understood Marx perfectly.

To build a just society, to the extent that it can be built, we must be honest. Human needs should be satisfied whether or not people have equal talents. The Blank Slate is an attractive vision, as Pinker says. But, as he also says, "it is not true" (421). Believing in a lie is always dangerous. Believing that human nature can be created anew has led to the Gulag and the Inquisition. There have been many brutish regimes in history, but ideology combined with brutishness leads to an extreme level of horror. Pinker has done us all a service by reminding us of these facts.

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*Ed: Pinker held this position until 2003, when this article first appeared; he is currently Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

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George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

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Copyright ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. A different version of this review appeared in Jewish Currents: July-August, 2003. It can also be found in the essays of George Jochnowitz. It is republished here with the permission of the author.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Children & The Drugs They Are Forced To Take

Child Behaviours

An article, by Roni Jacobson, in Scientific American questions whether children ought to be prescribed anti-psychotic drugs.

Jacobson writes:
Modern antipsychotic drugs are increasingly prescribed to children and adolescents diagnosed with a broad variety of ailments. The drugs help to alleviate symptoms in some disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but in others their effectiveness is questionable. Yet off-label prescribing is on the rise, especially in children receiving public assistance and Medicaid.
Psychotic disorders typically arise in adulthood and affect only a small proportion of children and adolescents. Off-label prescriptions, however, most often target aggressive and disruptive behaviors associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “What's really concerning now is that a lot of this prescription is occurring in the face of emerging evidence that there are significant adverse effects that may be worse in youth than in adults,” says David Rubin, a general pediatrician and co-director of PolicyLab at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Here we review the evidence for the effectiveness of antipsychotic medications commonly prescribed for five childhood conditions. But do the benefits outweigh the risks?
This is always the question. There are many others that come to mind. Has the field of human psychology gotten better in diagnosing such disorders? Are there now more young people who are suffering mental illness? Or is writing a prescription an easy solution to offer parents who are having difficulties with their children, or rather with the schools they attend? It is easy to be sympathetic to parents who are under societal pressure, notably from schools, that their children behave in accordance with expected norms. Many schools have a dictatorial policy that forces parents to give their children prescription drugs before they are allowed to return to class; it sounds absurd, but such is the way it currently is in many, if not most, schools in Canada and the United States.

Yet, it might be that the norms themselves are defective, unscientific and unrealistic, especially as it applies to young growing boys. Here's why. What teachers and school social workers deem as disruptive behaviour might be little more than boys (and it's generally young males) acting as boys do—they full of energy and finding it hard to sit in a chair for hours. Perhaps the school system and how it teaches teachers ought to be reviewed and brought into the 21st century; it seems from my experience as a parent of three children, including two boys, that schools today are generally restrictive and authoritarian.

Drugs might sedate the children, make them more malleable and acquiescent, but do so with many side effects, the article points out:
Modern antipsychotics, called “atypical” to distinguish them from the first generation of antipsychotic drugs, were initially promoted as a safer alternative to their forerunners. Yet it has become clear that atypical antipsychotics are associated with a host of serious side effects, such as weight gain, diabetes, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. In a study of 116 youths with early-onset schizophrenia, children taking risperidone gained eight pounds on average after taking the medication for eight weeks, whereas children taking olanzapine gained 13 pounds on average—prompting a safety review board to terminate the olanzapine arm of the trial early. Children taking antipsychotics are also three times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than children not taking the medication, according to a 2013 study by researchers at Vanderbilt University.
I suspect that further study will reveal more deleterious side effects, not only to the physical body, which is easy to measure, but to the human mind; it seems that such drugs are over-prescribed and poorly understood in terms of long-term effects.

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You can read more at [SciAmer].

Monday, March 3, 2014

Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities

English Literary Figures


Isaac D'Israeli [ 1766-1848]: This is as he appears in the frontispiece to Vol. I of the 1880 Armstrong and Son edition of Curiosities of Literature.
Credit: Archives.org
Source: PubDomainRev
In an article  in the Public Domain Review, Marvin Spevack looks at the literary life of Isaac D'Israeli, the father of British prime minister, Benjamin D'Israeli, and who was a scholar and a man of letters. One of his better-known works is Curiosities of Literature (first published in 1791, with subsequent volumes in 1793, 1817, 1823 and 1834), which is itself a book of a curious and capacious mind. Byron was one of his faithful readers, enjoying the anecdotes, gossip and scandal the book contained.

Spevack writes:
In a preface dated March 1839 D’Israeli described his ever-evolving work as a “voluminous miscellany, composed at various periods … a circuit of multifarious knowledge [which] could not be traced were we to measure and count each step by some clinical pedometer.” It would, however, be a misjudgment to regard the miscellany as a jungle of whimsical impressions or fanciful thoughts. Rather, it is a man-made woodland landscaped, cultivated, and manicured by an urban if not urbane gentleman. D’Israeli derived most of his knowledge from books – the first essay is on “Libraries” – for he himself was unabashedly bookish and bibliophilic. But in the range and variety of its topics D’Israeli’s curious world was not hermetically sealed off from the world outside the library, else it would never have had so widespread a popularity over so long a period.
If Curiosities of Literature did not directly reflect contemporary social, political, and literary matters, or rely on current gossip or scandal, it did in any case deal with them as recognizable features and phenomena of human existence in recurring clusters unrestricted by time or place. As might be expected, the most prominent is that of literary personalities, productions, and attendant concerns. Of the numerous authors who are subjects of individual essays, although they are drawn from Roman times to the eighteenth century, none are contemporaries of D’Israeli and no particular genre is dominant.
Isaac D'Israeli had literary interests, as is common to  men of such mien; but, more important, he also had the time to pursue them. In Disreali (1928),  André Maurois writes that a young D'Israeli disliked the business of commerce that his father (named Benjamin) pursued and instead preferred the literary life. This was made clear in his youthful poem: "Against Commerce, which is the Corruption of Mankind." His parents, although disappointed in his choice, acquiesced and let him be to follow his interests.

Maurois writes:
Thereupon Isaac D'Isreali adopted a mode of life which went unchanged until his dying day. he spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum, a delicious spot where, in those days, never more than five or six readers were to be seen. there he covered with notes the sheets of paper with which his pockets were always stuffed. (7)
D'Israeli had noted influences; one was undoubtedly Voltaire, Maurois writes: "Isaac D'Isreali was a Voltairean, in matters of politics a Conservative; but any form of government was good in his eyes if it allowed a man of moderate fortune to go on making, without being disturbed, a collection of literary anecdotes" (8).

One salient point is that Isaac D'Israeli had all his children baptized, becoming members of the Church of England (Anglican) in 1817. Isaac was a man who held a modern and progressive outlook on Judaism; and while he himself did not undergo conversion to Christianity, he thought it necessary for his children to better their opportunities, whatever these might be.

Benjamin, the future prime minister, was baptized when he was 12; until 1858 all members of parliament "were required to take the oath of allegiance 'on the true faith of a Christian', necessitating at least nominal conversion," Wikipedia writes. Yet, like many Jews who underwent conversion for political and economic reasons (Mahler is another notable example), the only Jewish prime minister in British history still retained his Jewish spirit, so to speak.

Issac's son, who bore the name of  Benjamin (the same as Isaac's father) was obviously of different temperament than the father and pursued what many would say were more practical interests, entering a life of politics and power.

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You can read more at [PubDomRev]

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Muslim Azerbaijan & Its Jews: Relations Are Better Than You Think

Muslim-Jewish Relations


Jews of Azerbaijan: Rob Eshman of Jewish Journal writes: This group of kippot-wearing Azeri boys greeted an American visitor with laughter and shouts of  'hello' and 'Shabbat shalom!' ” 
Photo Credit: Rob Eshman
Source: Jewish Journal
An article, by Rob Eshman, in the Jewish Journal ("The mysteries of Azerbaijan: A Shiite nation embraces its Jews"; December 18, 2013) looks at the relationship between the Jews and the political leadership of the Muslim and oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan; it is better than most would suspect or some would hope.

Eshman writes:
Red Village rises up along the Qudiyal River like a Jewish Brigadoon. To get there, you fly 13 hours from Los Angeles to Istanbul, then catch a three-hour flight to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan — a former Soviet country of some 9 million people on the Caspian Sea. From Baku, you take a bus past churning oil derricks and miles of empty desert, up into the Caucasus, through tiny villages surrounded by apple orchards. After two hours, you arrive in Quba, the capital of Azerbaijan’s northeast region. About a mile past an attractive central mosque, a simple steel bridge spans a wide, mostly dry riverbed and leads directly into Red Village.
One of the first things you see is a large brick building atop which sits — improbably, impossibly — a Jewish star. About 4,000 people live in Red Village, every one of them Jewish. That makes Red Village the largest all-Jewish settlement outside the State of Israel. This entirely Jewish town exists in an almost entirely Muslim country—ancient, placid, prosperous. It is also completely unknown to the majority of the world’s Jews. I had to see Red Village to believe it. I had to figure out: What’s the deal with Azerbaijan? Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev convened 750 journalists, scholars, activists and scientists from around the world to participate in the annual Baku International Humanitarian Forum.

The invitation offered a chance to see for myself a country that, from what I’d heard over the years, has never quite fit the standard American perception of Muslim = Fanatic and Shiite = Really Fanatic. After all, Iran, also a Shiite nation, lies just across Azerbaijan’s southern border. But while Iran is the Jewish state’s mortal enemy, Azerbaijan is Israel’s largest supplier of oil and a major purchaser of Israeli defense technology. The Shiites of Iran would treat me, an American Jew with a passport full of Israeli stamps, as an enemy. In Azerbaijan, I was an honored guest.

My visit was personally arranged through Azerbaijan’s Western Region Consul General, Nasimi Aghayev. I’m not the first journalist lured to explore Azerbaijan’s incongruities, but I do seem to be the first in my crowd. Few people I talked to about my travel plans beforehand had heard of Azerbaijan, and even fewer of its Jewish connection.

You could fault Azeris for not getting the word out, but in the 22 years since it gained its independence, Azerbaijan has had to focus on rebuilding, not rebranding. What struck me first when I arrived in Baku is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a fast transition. Now that its tremendous oil and gas wealth isn’t being siphoned off to feed the Soviet empire, the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) has soared.
Such shows many things, including that Islam is not necessarily hostile to either the Jews or to Israel; when politics intervene it acts a wedge between peoples. Thus, there need be a distinction made between Islam the religion and political Islam, just as there need be a distinction between Christianity and political Christianity and between Judaism and political Judaism. Politics and religion always make a toxic brew, benefiting few.

Yet, when the politics and its resulting hostility of divisiveness is removed from religion, allowing it to focus on what it ought to do—bettering the lives of its adherents—then there is much to bring people and nations together. Common interests come to the foreground. I have a firm belief that another large and powerful Shiite nation, Iran, which has, until recently (1979), had a long and harmonious and fruitful history with the Jewish people, will one day make peace with Israel.  There is no real reason why this can't take place. When this happens, it will change everything in the region.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Space Travel For The Wealthy

New Frontiers


Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwoJohn Sunyer of FT writes: "Virgin Galactic flights might, for example, in future open up suborbital intercontinental travel – or “point-to-point transportation” – ferrying the super-rich around the globe via the space environment, achieving significant improvements to today’s travel time between distant hubs."

Credit & Source: FT

An article, by John Sunyer, in the Financial Times looks at the business of space travel, notably on how a number of companies are investing in commercial space flight. The initial customers will be the wealthy and super-wealthy, who would benefit from advanced space-age rockets, which would blast them into sub-orbital flight (designated as 100 km above sea level) over the earth, as a means to cut travel times, but also as a means to eventually set up colonies on Mars.

Sunyer writes:
Today the idea, if not quite the practice, of living in space is coming back into fashion. If the 20th century space race was about the might of the US government, the space race today is about something that could be even more powerful – private wealth. “Investment in commercial space flight has become one of the big trends among the super-rich,” says Liam Bailey, head of global research at Knight Frank. The property agency has identified more than 70 ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWIs – people with at least $30m in net assets) investing in commercial space travel, 13 of whom are billionaires with a combined wealth of $175bn.
Over the past few years the necessary technology has come into the hands of an unlikely group of young tech billionaires and private contractors. And it is their start-ups that have the boldest ambitions. There are about 10 private companies engaged in space transport at present, including SpaceX, created by billionaire PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s chief executive Jeff Bezos. Space tourism, driven by companies such as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Greason’s XCOR Aerospace, aim to give the super wealthy a taste of what it is like to be an astronaut by sending them into suborbital space.
Aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, passengers will see the view that eluded mankind until 50 years ago, and one that only about 500 people have seen in reality: the curvature of the Earth set against the blackness of space. The two-hour journey will blast six passengers and two pilots nearly 70 miles into the sky, experiencing about five minutes of weightlessness before turning back and landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico, frequently described as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.
The privilege does not come cheap; tickets cost $250,000 each. To date, Virgin Galactic has amassed about $80m in deposits. In customary happy-go-lucky style, Branson says he and his children will be on board the maiden flight later this year (although he initially predicted that his first passengers would take off in 2007; since then, as Tom Bower outlines in his new book, entitled Branson: Behind the Mask , the project has been beset by explosions, deaths and delays).
 [...] 
Virgin Galactic flights might, for example, in future open up suborbital intercontinental travel – or “point-to-point transportation” – ferrying the super-rich around the globe via the space environment, achieving significant improvements to today’s travel time between distant hubs.
Suborbital travel could cut the journey time from London to Sydney to just a couple of hours, ditto from San Francisco to Singapore. Dubai to Vancouver would take about 90 minutes; Moscow to New York, just an hour.
If this sounds hard to believe, so did manned space travel 50 years ago, as did the idea of any type of commercial flight 150 years ago. What is even more futuristic and fits within the realm of science-fiction novels is the colonization of our nearest planetary neighbour, Mars. One of the companies working on this is SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, an Internet billionaire:
But SpaceX, founded in 2002, is his most ambitious project. Working out of a shiny white, 1m sq ft factory in California, SpaceX has already made history: in 2012 it became the first private company to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station.
Still, its ultimate goal is to establish a permanent settlement on Mars. By using rockets that can return to Earth intact, rather than burn up in the atmosphere, the price of a space mission would be cut dramatically. Offering cheap, reliable delivery services to Nasa and commercial clients is, for Musk, a means to perfect the technology that could one day get humans to Mars.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to send the first person there by 2025,” he says. “Developing reusable rockets are the fundamental breakthrough needed in rocketry, without which there will be no Mars base. We aren’t there quite yet, but we’re working on it.”
As are the Dutch with a project called Mars One; 2025 is only a decade from now, and it will come soon enough. This makes it likely that in the next few years, more private companies will join a far different kind of space race that we witnessed in the 1960s; instead of the nations of the United States and the Soviet Union vying for supremacy, it will be private enterprises vying to establish colonies on Mars, and from there building cities and then states—they likely taking on the names of today's Internet billionaires. The reasons for doing so are the same reasons humans have done so for thousands of years. And this is where the story begins all over again.

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You can read the rest of the article at [FT].