Thursday, September 29, 2005

Interesting Experience

Like so many blogs, this one is degenerating into the story of my life, as if anyone cares about that. But then again, I am the only subject that seems to give me enough energy to write a whole post, so there you go. On to the story.
Today, I was sitting on a bench on campus, reading The Last Days of a Condemned Man outside instead of in my dorm room so that I would not turn into a hideous, sun-bereft vampire, which is what I'll probably do if I stay always in my room eating instant soups with the blinds pulled down. But I digress.
As I was sitting there, a twenty-something-looking girl came over to me and asked me if I would be interested in joining a Bible discussion group. I declined, not being overly interested in discussing the New Testament, or even the Old Testament, with a group of Christians, not to be un-multidenominational or something.
Then she asked me if I were Jewish. Darn it, that skirt always gives me away. We spent about five, ten minutes sitting there talking about Genesis and Ecclesiastes (who can pronounce that, let alone spell it?) which she was currently studying. It was a bit of a weird conversation, as I'm not used to discussing Scriptures with Christians, and I think vice versa was equally true. She asked me if I ever read the New Testament (I said that it would be like her reading the Koran, which she seemed to agree with) and why I liked reading the Old Testament (um...?) and tried to convince me to join her discussion group (I pleaded busyness and pointed out the difference in the way we'd be approaching the texts and got away with just giving her my e-mail address.)
It was a very interesting cultural discussion, just the sort of thing that I suppose one is supposed to broaden one's mind with in college, and I think I got through it well enough, although there was an uncomfortable moment or so when we discussed the Jew's part in the Crucifixion (sp?) (less exciting than it sounds- she just said that she didn't blame the Jews and I agreed.) I suppose now it's just a question of waiting for the e-mails to begin.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pavlovian Reactions

I don't think I ever fully realized how conditioned I've been by my school experience until this week. During orientation, we've had all sorts of speeches and sessions, and everytime a Dean or Professor gets up to speak, I have to fight the treacherous impulse in my knees to rise for them. In elementary school, we rose for teachers, and actually all adults as a sign of respect (I think my one and only call in to talk radio involved that fact. Another story.) In high school, one stood for the more important teachers (Rabbis, principals, etc.) and I never broke the habit of rising for everyone. Which wasn't regarded as so weird because so did a lot of other people. But here, people clap for professors and I'll look like a moron if I rise. So I always end up doing this embaressing little half bounce thing and hope that nobody notices.
I suppose it could have been worse. Imagine if they trained me to bow.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Nerds of the World Unite

So there I was, as I would say if I was beginning a comedy routine, so there I was sitting in a big impressive room of the University of Chicago, with portraits of former someone or others decorating the high-ceilinged walls, waiting for the lecture on the Collegiate Division of Humanities to begin, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the grandeur and the amounts of other students. A girl comes and sits beside me and we kind of half ignore one another, half smile in that uncomfortable complete strangers trying to be polite sort of way. Until...she mentions something about Harry Potter and we (and a third girl sitting in the row in front of us that neither of us knew) have a twenty minute, heated, intellectual discussion about what we thought of the sixth book (lousy), whether Snape is really bad (like anyone believes that), whether Dumbledore is coming back (disagreement on the subject- possibly as a portrait), similarities to Lord of the Rings (Frodo saying he's going to fight Sauron alone and then Sam coming with him- I'm taking her word for it, I can't stand the books), how dead Sirius currently is (only somewhat), who R.A.B. is (Regulus A. Black), the symbolism of Snape's actions (some sort of sacrificing his place in the community for something or other), whether Harry is now a Horcrux (possibly), and on and on, ending with the two of us exchanging e-mail adresses, by far the closest relationship that I formed with a random seat-mate.
Nor is this the only case of Harry Potter's unifying and discussion-stimulating abilities. I recall several years ago, at a meal at our shul, someone had brought her nine year old niece from Israel with her. The poor girl sat quietly as everyone gossiped, not knowing anyone and looking awkward...Until my sister asked her if she was into Harry Potter.
Maybe this is just the first time I've even marginally been into a trend, or maybe it's the fact that the books really have a lot of fun plot and discussion, but there's something special about a book that provides hours of fun and bonding for complete strangers. Especially when it's geared specifically for the under-represented group of scifi nerds.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Constitutional Interpretation

What with all the fun of Roberts' nominations going on, there has been a lot of discussion about different judicial methods- namely, the debate between strict constructionalists, who base their rulings on the text of the Constitution and more free interpreters (the official name escapes me), who are willing to read the Constitution according to what they feel is the most moral decision. While I personally am a fan of the former, I can see the point of view of those who cannot resist but try to make the world as they wish it was, as opposed to what it is- if I had the power to do so, I would probably be pretty tempted to remake the law, too.
But what I cannot understand is the theoretical opinion of the Originalists. I know that this is really often a code name for the practice I do support, but the idea still bothers me. As my father pointed out, a strict originalist should never have required desegregation under the fourteenth amendment, because obviously the people who wrote it had no problem with their own segregated societies. One can dance away from this by saying that Originalism is not an absolute, but a sliding scale, modified for the situation, blah blah blah, but the way I look at it, I don't really care what exactly everyone who wrote the Constitution was thinking at the time. I care about what they wrote. My ideal form of reading the Constitution is rather like an approach to Talmud study- read the passage, see what it could be saying, pick the reading that fits the best with the text without creating massive glitches in reality. Sometimes, a knowledge of historical context helps us understand a confusing text or language, but this is less of an issue with a Constitution written only two hundred years ago, from which time the culture and language have not shifted enough to make things actually difficult to understand.
Everyone who wrote the Constitution and its amendment undoubtably knew that their text would be re-read throughout history (certainly this is true of later amendments, whose framers had already seen it happen). Therefore, anything they wanted in, they should have written, and our business is to read their words and not their minds.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Fatal Flaws

While re-reading the latest Harry Potter (I'm so ashamed of how hooked I am on that series, especially considering how disappointing this latest offering was), I was spurred into one of my favorite rants about literature. Here goes. WHY is it that every villian, every evil plan must always have one fatal flaw? Sometimes it seems to be simply overlooked, which strikes me as silly when you've painted your villian as cunning and all-brilliant as you have. Take for example, the fourth (I think) Star Wars. Why, exactly, couldn't the Evil, almost Omnipotent Empire or Emperor think of running his own computer stimulation of the Death Star to see if maybe, just maybe, it had only one, ever so slight means of attack. I mean, why build long twisting tunnels just wide enough for a couple of planes leading to your one crucial weakness? Stupidity is the only reasonable explanation, and making your villians stupid makes your heroes a lot less impressive.
But even more annoying is when the one possible means of success seems to have been carefully planned by the creators of the system. Take, for example, Voldemort's defense of his Horcrux. It was in a cave that could be opened only by the offering of blood, then across a lake with a boat big enough for only one person (or at least, only one powerful wizard), and in a basin full of liquid that had to be drunk, but made the drinker unable to drain it. A brilliant defense! No, actually it was a stupid defense, as is evidenced by the fact that it failed not once, but twice. (To our knowledge. Who knows how many people were hopping in and out over the years). Because, of course, it had the fatal flaw that the wizard could bring a child or perhaps some other sentient creature along with him.
My question- Why the whole blinking system??! If we will go with the assumption that Voldemort wants to know if anyone is trying to get the Horcrux (not that he ever seemed to show up at the scene), why not have an alarm go off as soon as the blood is spilled, and the rock not open? Why have any sort of boat at all? Why not have a potion that knocks the drinker instantly unconscious, if you don't want him dead? Why put the stupid thing in the middle of the big basin in the middle of the island instead of hiding it or something? Why have the inferi set to go off after the Horcrux is already secured (and besides, won't they kill the person you seem so eager to keep alive)? So much foolishness.
Nor does it seem limited to the villians. Take, for example, the first book in the same series. Now it seems perfectly logical, but in the hindsight, the whole maze towards the Sorceror's Stone is ludicrous. If the point is to simply defend the blinking thing, why make it so that there is one key to the locked door? Why make there be any potion to get you through the walls of fire at all? (That actually seems like a good place to have the alarms go off and the authorities come get the bad guys as they sit trapped between the two walls of fire.) For that matter, if we can expect Rowling to use spells invented for later books, why not use a secret keeper and leave it in another place entirely? In short, why make it accessible at all?
And sadly enough, the answer always seems to be "Because the author needed it that way." I am sure that I would run into the same problems if I was ever constructing a complicated plot (a friend and I have a joke about letting the facts interfere with our plots), but nonetheless, it is very cheap. If a prize is found only at the end of a maze, there should be a darn good reason that it is there instead of being entirely inaccessible. The reason can be anything- your villian is a sadist, the whole thing is a test, the villian really didn't think of that idea, etc- but the reason ought not to be that it jsut fit your plot better that way.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Bad Graphics

Maybe it's a personal oddity, but I've found that the first thing I look for in a computer game, on the infrequent occasions that I'm looking for a computer game, is bad graphics. Any game that works in three dimensions, boasts of anything lifelike, or can make its circles much more than octagons automatically loses points in my book and needs other really bad graphics or cool features to make up for it. (For example, I put up with some Star Wars 3-D game because a) they did it so very badly and b) they had little video cut scenes after each level)
I suppose I must be in the minority here, becuase otherwise there would be no motive for anyone to make good graphics, but I think that my opinion has strands of validity because: 1) games with bad graphics usually devote their attention to other aspects of the game that matter to me more, like action, difficulty, witty or cute touches, anything like that. 2)I'm not watching the game for attempts at reality. What I am playing is manifestly a computer game and there's no need to go around trying to make me feel like it's happening, especially because the games are often violent and the realer they get, the more disgusted and put off I am by the carnage. Shooting a Mario fireball is not morally disturbing; gunning down pedestrians with real authentics guts is. 3) Games with bad graphics are usually older games and older games are usually better games. I find this is also true by movies and books and at first I attributed it to the failing nature of modern society, blah blah blah, but now I realize that it's simple logic. The only old things that are still around now are the very best of the crop, so naturally they're going to be better than the average new thing, which has not been pruned by the fussiness of time. Mario, for example, survived because it was the best, so naturally it's better than the run-of-the-mill, good graphic games that plague us today.
Once this opinion won me the scorn of my little brother, but I think I've managed to work him over to my side by now. The last game he was seen playing was Super Mario. The original version.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


When I was young, I used to collect the book from all of the people at the end of the services every Saturday. It was cute and it was useful, as the bookshelf was in the front of the room and the door was in the back, so my quick action saved everyone the trouble of going to the front of the room and then back, not to mention the traffic jam. The problem is, now I am eighteen and the bookshelf is right next to the door, and I can' t think of any way to get out of the whole silly arrangement. My collecting books has become such a staple in the synagauge, one of those traditions (It's been going on for over ten years, and almost as long as the synagauge has been in its current location) that everybody knows and loves. After a year a way in Israel, I know that it gave everyone a warm feeling to see me back at work collecting and I hate to disappoint all the old ladies who have come to rely on me. Really, quite annoying, since I know that I am basically useful, but dare not pull out lest I have to discuss it for weeks on end at the Kiddush after prayers. The only escape I have is that I'm going off to college next week and probably won't be collecting the books there, but I know that everytime I come home to visit, I'll have to collect everyone's books or terribly disappoint the old ladies.
It seems like a metaphor for something, but I can't quite think what.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Quick Quote

I know- not enough to count as this round of post, but still priceless
Heard on the radio, an advertisement boasted that "our magazine is reliably conservative- none of that bias that you find in other magazines."

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Suffering Artists

There is a perception out there that all truly great artists must suffer in order to acheive greatness. To quote my aunt "You must plumb the depths in order to reach the heights" (she said at the time it was a quotable quote and I've been itching to quote it ever since.) While it is possible to find various exceptions (Did Shakespeare ever suffer? Did Bach?), the rule does seem to be true, that the overwhelming majority of artists did have hard lives and/or early and tragic deaths.
I have a few main thoughts about this. 1) Are their lives more tragic, stastically speaking, than the average person. One large tragedy in someone's life may make it tragic on paper, but perhaps every given person has about the same, over a lifetime. And if you count early death after a happy life seperately, then you're upping the average.
2) A lot of the suffering is self-afflicted. Meaning to say that it may not be suffering that spawns art, it may be that the artistic temperment spawns suffering, which is not to say that it's not reciprocal. A tragic love affair, suicide, drinking problems- all of these are nobody's fault except for the author's, and these seem to comprise the majority of the artistic suffering that we find.
3) The rule, so far as it exists, seems to exist only for the truly great artists. Good art, the sort of stuff that people enjoy, even if it is not classic, seems to be created frequently by normal, functional people. Which seems to argue that the suffering imparts not the artfulness, but the message of the art- that those who suffer have more to say about life, or- more likely in my mind- those who think deeply about life and so on- often bring suffering on themselves.
Based on which, I would say that suffering is not inherent to art. Some people who think about life, one must assume, do not come to depressing or self-destructive conclusions along the way. Many of them do. And possibly that experience adds to what they have to say about life. But art is possible about suffering- even great art, so long as the artist is a student of life who has come to happy, functional conclusions.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Walmart and MoneyBall

There is absolutely no reason that the giant chain store and the book about bringing sabermetics into baseball should be at all connnected in my mind, but to me they seem to be the same thing- empires built on logic and economics and cold hard numbers and a lot of capitalism.
It always gives me a warm feeling to walk into Walmart. Not just because they sell everything I could ever need and are very cheap, but because I feel like I am being expertly handled. Any sign or plan has been tested somewhere and proven to work. If they choose to offer bathrooms to the clients, this was not somebody's random notion, it was the result of a scientific and focus-group tested something or other. Other people might feel manipulated about this, but I feel secure that my shopping experience is in the hands of an expert, which, I suppose, is just how the A's fans should feel after reading moneyball.
Perfect example (not of Moneyball, I try to ignore baseball as much as is possible in a home that contains my brother). Walmart's checkout bags. While not adopting the Israeli system of "Bag it yourself. What, you want me to bag it or something? You have hands. Come on, Chabibi, keep moving, we've got a line here," nonetheless Walmart has decided that it must do this process just a little bit more efficiently than everyone else, because this is Walmart. So they have these bag carousel thingees shaped like triangles, so that the bagger can just spin the wheel to get new, empty bags, while the shopper can remove the old ones at his leisure. Brilliant.
It's like when I read Cheaper by the Dozen or watched an assembly line in action- it is simply a pleasure to watch something being done right, with intelligence and efficiency. Long live the Walmart mentality!

Sunday, September 04, 2005


I know actually very little about Rehnquist and nothing about him as a person, and so it is hard for me to truly mourn his death and therefore this is not a eulogy or a tribute as I'm sure he deserves. I suppose it's more of a continuation from the last post, although a bit more reflective.
When I heard of Rehnquist's death this morning, I reacted the same way that I'm sure a lot of other people did- a short, reverential silence that death merits, and then on to discussing who will replace him, how this will affect Roberts, how long this was expected, what this will do to the nature of the bench, and then some tangents about the nature of Chief Justice-hood as opposed to being a regular Justice. Afterwards, I felt... not quite guilty, but a bit cheap, because I had somehow lapsed into viewing this person as a Justice and not a person. He had family, and a life, and a personality in a manner that is hard to remember when you view a public figure as...a figure, a hieroglyph, symbol, or perhaps just an animated character that runs across the screen.
So this post is not about the person Rehnquist- I know absolutely nothing about him- but it is a tribute to the fact that Rehnquist too was a person, who must not only be replaced, but also mourned.

Katrina Coverage

Since several members of my family, (including, I'm afraid, myself) are somewhat addicted to talk radio and many of them are addicted to political blogs blgos, Ivarious pundits' opionions about Katrina. It's pathetic. The fact is, there isn't all that much political to say about Katrina and now is not the time to say it. One of the peculiarities of our society is that everyone can comment on everything, as it happens and continually. Gone are the days when people had to be only Monday morning quarterbacks, reacting long after the crisis was over, when they could be nothing worse than annoying; now we are blessed with ten thousand Sunday afternoon quarterbacks, peeking over the players' shoulders during the huddle and loudly asking what's going on and why it's taking so long. Piece of personal advice- Shut up. There will be plenty of time to analyze what we did wrong later, when we are sincerely interested in trying to prevent such a calamity from happening again. Now is the time to help, to pull together and to shut up, not only about political attacks but also about the constant stream of analysis and re-analysis and the analysis of everyone else's analysis. Just shut up. Now is not the time for commentary, it is the time for action and if you can't act, then just shut up.
Unfortunately, this isn't really an option for anyone, is it? Because the news media, by definition, is not there to say what has to be said or to inform you of what you ought to know- it is there to fill up or fill in a certain amount of time a day. A reporter, radio host, and unfortunately, even a blogger, can't just get on the air at the beginning of their two-hour (or two page) slot and say "Well, Katrina's bad, but no good discussing it. Moving on..." It would seem callous and heartless and indeed it would be, besides the fact that there wouldn't be much else left to discuss.
This flaw is inherent in the medium and there's really nothing that the annoying people involved can do about it, although people are on the right track when the avoid recriminations and stick to facts. And it's a flaw that exists in, I suppose, the coverage of everything- I mean, the world rarely is a better place because people have discussed Senate confirmation hearings for two hours. But here the fault is all the more glaring, because people are dead, dying, in trouble at the same moment that self-satisfied pundits analysis the heck out of their suffering.
So, I suppose that my message can and will not be followed, but to the degree that pundits and certainly bloggers, who can set their own schedules, are able to follow it: Help what you can, pray all you are able, but just this once- shut up.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Excellent editorial in Wall Street Journal today (no, I won't be publishing a link here because I read it in good old fashioned hard copy). Actually, the best part was just the transcript of a conversation between Judge Janis something Jack and some unfortunate lawyer as she grilled him about his silcosis clients' previous claims of asbestosis (I hope that sentenance made a little sense there) I enjoyed not only because I'm generally pro-big business and think that all of these claims are usually bogus, as the lawyer was forced to admit about all the previous claims, but also because I have often thought that being a judge would be a great hobby. I wouldn't want to do it for a living, and I wouldn't want to have to be a lawyer all the years it takes to be one, but on and off, I would love to do it. 'It' being just the fun parts- the ones that involve brow-beating witnesses or lawyers, being all ironical and dryly clever and there's nothing they can do about it, because "There is nothing so much like G-d in Heaven as a judge in his courtroom" (Ten points for anyone who gets the quote adapted there). Of course, in my more rational mind, I know that this is not entirely true and judges do have rules of procedure and can get overturned for breaking them and dull things like that, but I still cherish the image of the Israeli Supreme Court. Unlike America, that Court is the court of first appeal for a lot of things and anyone can appeal up to it on demand, so they have a lot more cases. But best of all, they apparently (not that I am surprised, given that it is Israel) have the liberty to attack, be sarcastic at, brow-beat, yell at, etc. the lawyer, all at once if they like, interrupting him before he can answer their collegue's attack. It was awesome, especially since I was viewing it all with the special added bonus entertainment of trying to follow the rapid Hebrew.
So that remains in my mind as the model of the fun that one can have as a judge, especially if you ignore all the really boring bits, not to mention the homework of reading briefs and so on. Which is why it would be a great hobby and why I read the editorial not only cheering Judge Jack, but also envying her just a little.