Archive for the 'religion' Category

The Stupidest Sentence I’ve Ever Read

The stupidest sentence I’ve ever read was not written by a child. Not by a religious demagogue. Not by a YouTube user. Not by a politician and not by a political opinion blogger. Not by somebody who discovered a fun folk etymology.

All such people are expected to write stupid sentences, but they are all understandable in their context. Even the religious demagogue. I just don’t expect anything smart there.

No, the single stupidest sentence that I’ve ever read was written by a Harvard Medical School professor.

“We all know that exercise makes us feel better, but most of us have no idea why.”

This is the opening sentence of a book called Spark!: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain by John Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

The rest of this book may well be good, but I just couldn’t get past this. Seriously? Seriously? Opening a book that purports to be scientific, even if popular, with a sentence that is so easily falsified is a complete non-starter for me.

Exercise doesn’t make me feel better. And I damn well know why. It makes me feel like I’m tired and bored. It makes my body hurt. If makes me think that I’m investing time and effort in something exceptionally pointless and negative while I could do something useful. It does not make me feel anything positive at all.

This book, which is supposed to convince me to do exercise, does precisely the opposite with its opening sentence: It makes me hate the thought of exercise even more.

I first read that sentence a couple of years ago. Today I saw the book on the shelf, and I am still convinced that it’s the stupidest one I’ve ever read. I don’t care about “setting the mood”. I don’t care that that’s how book marketing works. I like things that have meaning, and sadly this book throws meaning out the window right from the start.

Feel free to call me a lazy ass, but you’ll be missing the point.

Advertisements

Uri Avnery and the Israeli Haredim

Uri Avnery is one of the main voices of the Israeli political left. Especially for people abroad – his English blog is frequently quoted in foreign blogs by people who are interested in Israel.

The opinions that Avnery expresses are strong and often unpleasant, but they are legitimate and they are usually have at least some basis in fact.

His latest column, Israeli Mustard, is about the ultra-orthodox Jews, also known as Haredim. It was quoted in Richard Stallman’s blog, for example. And it’s problematic. It’s mostly factual, but it has some imprecisions in details. They may seem unimportant, but they may be quoted and they may form people’s opinions, so I want to correct them. I don’t really care whether it’s intentional disinformation or neglect on Avnery’s side; I just want the corrections to be written down somewhere.

“Haredim […] are not part of the Israeli state. They don’t want to be.” – Well, not quite. It’s very open to interpretation, of course, but the situation goes more or less like this: There are Haredi leaders and ideologists, who express strong opposition to the existence of a Jewish Zionist state. What is important, however, is what people do and not what ideologists say.

For most purposes they are a part of the Israeli state and that’s how they want it. They mostly speak the same language (more on that later), they mostly vote in the same elections, they mostly have the same identity cards, they mostly ride the same buses. Despite the common rumors, many of them work in the same workplaces, although it’s true that many don’t work and instead spend all of their life in religious studies, earning much of their living from donations and from working Israelis’ taxes.

The Haredim are somewhat comparable in this regard to Jehovah’s Witnesses, although for many reasons they would, of course, hate the comparison. The Witnesses’ ideology is opposed to the modern idea of states, elections, conscription and so on, but in practice they are mostly integrated in the civil life of the states in which they live. From what I heard, the Witnesses don’t vote, and the Haredim actually do. And as far as I know, the Witnesses’ are not funded by taxpayers’ money, and the Haredim are.

“Actually, the Orthodox will never allow their children to join the army, because of the justified fear that they will be contaminated by ordinary Israelis” – again, not quite. Many Orthodox serve already. Patriotism is human, Haredim are human, serving in an army is an expression of patriotism – hence, some of them simply want to serve. Some do this not so much because of patriotism, but because they think that it is a good career move. Some do this with their parents’ agreement and some without. That’s fact. As for my opinion on the matter – well, my feeling is that their number is likely to grow, because it’s simply impossible for them to avoid this completely.

“The separation between the Orthodox and others – between Jews and Israelis, so to speak – is almost complete” – no. It exists, because at least some of them want it, or are pressured into it by their communal leadership. The separation is strongest in the education system: They definitely study in very different schools, and very few of them study in Israeli universities. But elsewhere the separation is weak: They often shop in different stores, but not exclusively. They often live in Haredim-only neighborhoods, but again, not exclusively. There is some separation in transportation, but despite the buzz that this topic generates, it’s actually quite small.

“The orthodox speak another language (Yiddish, meaning “Jewish”)” – no, and this is very important. Some Israeli Haredim speak Yiddish in some social contexts, but all of them know Hebrew. Not just the Hebrew of religious books, but the spoken Hebrew of the streets, the government, the newspapers and the shopping malls. They write with pretty much the same spelling inconsistencies that are characteristic to all Israelis. Of course, being a special and tightly-knit social group, they use some unique expression in their Hebrew, but you could say the same about computer programmers, too. For the most part, the Hebrew of Israeli Haredim is the same language as the Hebrew of the other Israelis. (I’m actually happy that Haredim keep Yiddish alive, but that’s a topic for a different post.)

The last paragraph of Avnery’s post made me particularly angry:

BY THE WAY: when an Israeli Jew is asked by a stranger anywhere in the world “what are you?” he always answers: “I am an Israeli”. He will never, ever, say: “I am a Jew”. Except the Orthodox

Well, this is not even wrong. “What are you”? What kind of a question is that? People don’t ask each other “what are you”, people ask “where are you from”. The answer to that is “Israel”, of course; both religious and secular Israelis say that. In the rare case that I’m asked what is my ethnicity, I say that I am a Jew, even though I’m not religious. So that’s definitely not a “never, ever” situation, as Avnery claims.

This is not to say that there is no discussion about the existence of an Israeli ethnic identity. It exists, and it’s old and passionate. Avnery just describes it very badly. I even agree that an Israeli ethnic identity exists, or, more precisely, co-exists with a Jewish ethnic identity. And despite their lifestyle and the claims of their leadership, the Haredim definitely belong to it. Israeli Haredim are Israeli, much like American Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are definitely American – whether they like it or not.

Mongol Bichig, or why Microsoft Internet Explorer is better than Firefox, Chrome and Opera

After writing this post I found out that Google Chrome, in fact, does support vertical Mongolian text.

The title of this post is designed to catch the eye. Microsoft Internet Explorer is not better than Firefox, Chrome and Opera – it’s worse than them in every imaginable regard.

Except one: the support for Mongol Bichig, the vertical Mongolian script.

Text in vertical Mongolian

Text in vertical Mongolian

Mongolian script is unique: its letters are connected, similarly to Arabic and its lines are written vertically. About three million Mongols in the independent republic of Mongolia use this script mostly for historical purposes, and use the Cyrillic script in their daily life, but the classical vertical script is the regular script for nearly six million Mongols in China – that’s about twice as much people.

The only browser that is able to display the vertical Mongolian script is Microsoft Internet Explorer. I don’t really know why Microsoft bothered to do it; maybe because the government of the People’s Republic of China demanded it. If that is true, then i salute the government of the People’s Republic of China. And i definitely salute Microsoft. I don’t like Microsoft’s insistence on keeping their code proprietary, but pioneering the support for this script, or any other, is praiseworthy.

I am very sad that at this time i cannot recommend my Mongolian friends to use my favorite browser, Firefox, or other modern browsers such as Google Chrome and Opera. For all their modernity, speed, feature richness and standards compliance, they are useless to over six million people who want to read and write in the vertical Mongolian script. At most, these browsers can display the script horizontally and with some letters incorrectly rendered. This also means that the only useful operating system for these people is Microsoft Windows.

One explanation that i heard for not supporting the vertical Mongolian script is that the CSS writing modes standard is not completely defined. This is actually a good and even noble reason, but when the most basic ability to read a language is in question, experimental support is better than no support.

So, which modern free browser will be the first to support the Mongolian script? I guess that it will be Firefox, given its excellent track record in supporting Unicode, and that Google Chrome will follow it after three years or so. But if Chrome developers surprise me and get there first, i’ll be just as happy. In any case, i am waiting impatiently, along with more than six million Mongols.

* * *


A completely unrelated postscript, intentionally hidden here, feel free to stop reading now: This morning i woke up to find that my Planet Mozilla feed was filled with reactions to a post by Gervaise Markham a.k.a. Gerv, in which he advocated keeping marriage defined as a union between a man and a woman, essentially opposing gay marriage. A lot of people were angry that anti-gay comments appear in a Mozilla-related feed and a lot of people were angry that anything off-topic appears there. Some people supported Gerv in different ways.

Gerv is a very well-known and very talented Mozilla programmer, and also a devout Christian. His blog is called “Hacking for Christ”. There’s nothing weird or wrong about it – there are many other excellent Christian hackers, like Perl’s Larry Wall and Jonathan Worthington and Mozilla’s Jonathan Kew. Gerv’s comment wasn’t particularly hateful; as it often goes, it focused on the legal side of things. Gerv is also an unusually charming person; i had the pleasure to meet him in Berlin.

All that said, i support gay marriage, i don’t support Gerv’s comment and i think that he shouldn’t have post it that way. But once he did, hey – water under the bridge. I care much more about his contributions to Mozilla’s code than about his social, legal and religious opinions.

And the loveliest part of it all is that in one the many comments to his post, i found a link to the play “8”, about the fight for recognizing gay marriage in California. On one hand, it’s a very well played PR stunt, with the highest league stars such as like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Yeardley Smith, John C. Reilly and George Takei. On the other hand, it’s actually worth watching. If this is what came out of that poorly placed blog post, then i’m not complaining.

Differences Between Things

The search box in Wikipedia suggests auto-completion when you start typing. For example, if you type “je” in the English Wikipedia search box, you’ll get the suggestions “Jews”, “Jewish”, “Jerusalem”, “Jesus”. (Jews kick ass!)

Jews Kick Ass. Henry Winkler, Albert Einstein, Sammy Davis Jr., Jesus, William Shatner, Bob Dylan

If you search for “differences between”, you’ll get this list:

auto-suggestions at Wikipedia for "differences between"

The top spot belongs to “Differences between editions of Dungeons & Dragons” and that shouldn’t be surprising: the article “List of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition monsters” only recently lost its first place in the list of the longest English Wikipedia articles by number of bytes to “‎2011 ITF Men’s Circuit” (it’s something in tennis).

Out of ten suggestions, six are related to languages. American and British English are considered one language, but everybody admits that it has many variations by pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary and many other parameters, and lots of people love to bicker about the spelling of “meter” and “aluminum”. Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian are one language that has different names for reasons that are more political than linguistic. Something similar can probably be said about Malaysian and Indonesian, Norwegian Bokmål and Standard Danish and Scottish Gaelic and Irish, but i know very little about these pairs.

Spanish and Portuguese are related, but definitely separate and mostly mutually unintelligible languages. It’s been said that it is easier for Portuguese speakers to understand Spanish speakers than the other way around, which is interesting, but it doesn’t really justify an encyclopedic article, as in the other cases. In fact, i am somewhat surprised that “Differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese dialects” is not in the list, given the huge number of arguments about it in the Portuguese – sorry, Lusophone – Wikipedia.

“Butterflies and moths” is probably the most serious article in this list, but that’s probably because i’m not a Biologist.

And the last two articles are about movies (James Bond – movies vs. novels) and religion (Codex Sinaiticus vs. Vaticanus), which is also very Wikipedia, the encyclopedia about which someone said that it has more stamp collectors than good writers. (Citation needed; I can’t find the original quote.)

Water at Seven

A Muslim construction worker who is doing improvements in my neighbor’s apartment asked me to put two bottles of water in my fridge. “Until seven o’clock,” he said. “Now it’s Ramadan. Thank you.”

… But they say there is a war between us.

Messiah

For many months the Hebrew word for “messiah” in the English Wikipedia was spelled terribly wrong. The correct vocalized spelling is מָשִׁיחַ, which looks very logical to anyone who has intermediate understanding of Hebrew morphology. But the Wikipedia article Messiah had this atrocious spelling since 2008-12-24: מֹשִׁיַּח and before that, since 2008-02-08, it was even more monstrous: מָׁשִיַח. Before 2008-02-08 it was correctly written מָשִׁיחַ, and when some user changed it, possibly in good faith, nobody noticed.

From the article Messiah it was copied to an even more important article: Jesus. From both of them it was copied to many websites by people who don’t know Hebrew, but probably like foreign alphabets. Try this Google search: “מֹשִׁיַּח” -site:wikipedia.org. You can find there, for example the San Antonio Hard Rock Church. Say hello to Pastor Roland Gloria! WTF.

The Jewish Surya Namaskar

Regular practitioners of Yoga do a Surya Namaskar—sun salutation every day.

Practitioners of Judaism have their own and completely different sun salutation—Birkat Hachammah. It is recited every 28 years and its next occurrence is in two weeks’ time.

So go find yourself a synagogue to attend, now. If you aren’t Jewish, ask a Jewish friend about a gentile-friendly synagogue. I can’t promise that the ceremony will be very interesting if Halakha and Yiddischkeit is not your cup of tea, but hey, will you forgive yourself if miss something that will happen again in 2037?

(A slightly scary thought: In 2037 i’ll be 57.)


Archives

Advertisements