Consummate dilettantism!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pilsen + Fuck the Hood

We went to Pilsen today. Pilsen is a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. I decided to go there because everyone was going downtown, and as I had already been there on several occasions, I thought that Pilsen would be a more unique choice. As it turns out, it was a very, very good choice.

We (I and few friends) went to a good Mexican restaurant and thence a bakery, wherein we enjoyed some very tasty pastries. Spotting this utterly phantasmagoric street art, we went and took pictures. At this point it should be noted that Pilsen isn't a touristy place; it's a bit ghetto, especially as you progress farther from the train station. At a lovely, decorated square between a church and a school, we happened to see a group of men filming what appeared to be a music video. We stopped and stared for a while, until one of them, who seemed to speak Spanish and French and English fluently, came over and began talking with us. He was an interesting and somewhat philosophical man, and invited us to follow the group. We did, and in doing so of course ventured into the poorer and less flashy part of Pilsen. (What made the situation odder was the presence of a strange, well-dressed man who followed and talked with us. His sudden disappearance was, or seemed, suspect.) But when we caught up to the group, we were actually invited to participate in the video! We immediately consented (how often do such opportunities arise?), and participated in a few takes with these very friendly hip-hop artists. We held up our middle fingers to the camera and, grim-faced, mouthed "fuck the hood," the name of the song being filmed. It's a good song (albeit obviously profane) with a good message. Listen to it here. It was, to say the least, a tremendously enlightening experience. That there is such beauty, culture, and warmth (we were happily greeted by random strangers) to be found in the "ghetto" is not something of which many people are cognizant. I only now realize just how stifling and sterile a suburb can be. Safer, of course, but in safety lies a removal of some of that which makes life worth living. One must move beyond one's comfort zone to experience cool, unadulterated shit.

I will inform you when the video is completed!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing

Why the Recycling to Which You Are Accustomed May Not Be Recycling at All

The premise on which "recycling" is based is a simple one, and to all appearances eminently sensible. In a world whose resources are limited, man must attempt to reuse what he has used or run the risk of overusing what he has. That is, used paper must be refashioned into recycled paper, used plastic into plastic, used aluminum into aluminum, &c. But often people fail to check their assumptions when recycling: There is something of a cultist aspect in the entire endeavor.

The key words here are "renewability" and "sustainability." A product is to be judged by its performance in these categories. But what is often omitted is the plain fact that "renewing" something isn't effortless. As with any process, energy is required; one cannot simply turn used plastic into new plastic without an expenditure thereof. And herein lies the fatal error: A recycling of physical items simply obscures the energy cost inherent in the process of creation (or re-creation). It is easy to see the costs of creating new paper: The cutting down of trees, the clearing of land, &c. But the cost of renewing paper is just shifted: The energy used in renewing the paper is non-renewable, and, depending upon the method of energy acquisition, the costs are just as obvious. Indeed, in most cases, it is more energy-intensive to recycle old items than to find new ones. There are, of course, some exceptions (aluminum is the most notable), but this holds true for most things. Recycling is often not only not economically feasible but also inefficient and even environmentally destructive.

This, by the way, is the same fallacy that accompanies the mythologizing of hybrid cars: To borrow a phrase from the noted Milton Friedman, there is no free lunch. It may be the case that the production of electricity for battery-operated cars is easier on the environment than gasoline production and emission, but one must recognize that hybrid cars, unless their electric energy is derived from fully renewable sources, are not "emission-free."

But perhaps this energy expenditure is worth it. After all, maybe it is better to use more energy in the short run to preserve our natural resources. Perhaps the derivation of energy used in recycling taxes the environment less, perhaps the supply of the material from which the energy is derived is in abundant supply (and thus less worthy of conservation), or perhaps the source of energy used in recycling is renewable. One cannot hide the fact there is only a limited supply of plastic and paper. Won't we run out of trees or plastic? In most cases this "problem" is much exaggerated. Sometimes the non-renewable source is only partially non-renewable or even renewable: Paper comes from trees, which, although limited in number, are living organisms that can multiply and reproduce. They hook into, in the wisdom of The Lion King, the circle of life, the primeval cycle of renewable. But most often, as the brilliant economist Julian Simon theorized, there are substitutes for the resources which we think are utterly critical to our survival. Although whale blubber was once the method of choice for light, this is no longer the case, and whale blubber is no longer sought. Many, many resources are fast becoming irrelevant. How foolish would environmentalists in a paperless future sound when proclaiming the destruction of trees for paper! The notion of "peak oil," too, is bunk: As the price of oil increases, incentives will abound to either find more or to use something else. In the words of Donald Bordeaux, we will never run out of oil, not because there is an unlimited supply, but because demand will always change to meet supply. Indeed, on this counting, recycling may even be counterproductive, affording us the unaffordable luxury of sticking to primitive resources like plastic and paper when we could be searching for newer, better technologies.

There is no limit to human ingenuity. The human mind, not government, not God, not Gaia, has created out of nothing the vast wealth of the developed world. Why have material conditions improved as they have? Whence has come this astonishing increase in wealth? The ultimate resource, again borrowing from Simon, is the mind. What is truly infinite is the output of ideas, whose momentum is ever-increasing and whose power is monumentally tangible. It is not what we have but how we use what we have that matters.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Blog Update!

Doesn't it look nicer? Check it out. It has more meta-content and is a little more readable.

Raising a Family Is *Not* the Most Difficult Job in the World

This Pelosi comment really infuriated me, so I ranted.

But as challenging as it is, nothing is as challenging as raising a family -- nothing.
The fact that well over half of American citizens attempt to do just that somehow renders her statement less than plausible. The difficulty of being a parent is often grossly exaggerated -- nothing is more challenging than raising a family? Really? Not developing nuclear weapons, not running a country, not reading ancient Sanskrit literature? Why, then, are there so many people employed in the former and not the latter?

Before you say that she's merely employing a bit of hyperbole, or that she's cynically grasping at the mommy vote, consider that one hears this from many, many people about their chosen professions (especially unionized professions). It's common to hear police and firefighters and soldiers talk about the ludicrous difficulty of their jobs and how they deserve more respect than anyone else. What is so grating is how any challenge is immediately confronted with "You don't know what I do everyday," or even "You couldn't even begin to imagine the difficulty of my job." These statements effectively bludgeon people into submission: Who would deny that police, firefighters, soldiers, and mothers all play important roles in our society? (For they do: These jobs are critical, the very foundations of modern life.) These are such big constituencies that no one ever does, and so nonsense like this goes unchecked. Most people could make at least a decent stab at raising a family; very, very few could comprehend the nature of our universe as Einstein could.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jews, Genetics, and History

Who are the Jews? It is a simple question. It is less simple to answer properly. I will attempt to do so now.

The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) records the history of a pre-Jewish tribe of Semitic nomads (by Semitic I mean, very roughly, "Middle-Eastern") generally referred to as the Hebrews. (It is important to remember that racially, these Hebrews were not European -- they had more in common with contemporary Palestinians and the Lebanese. According to the Bible, their ancestor was Abraham, who compelled by God left the ancient city of Ur in Iraq for Canaan.) It contains 24 books. The first five, whose original stories are probably older than history and whose basic text first began to be written down around 1000 BC, are extremely ancient. Religious Jews, unlike Christians, believe these 24 books to be not only divinely inspired but also divinely authored. To them, every single letter was spoken to Moses by God Himself on Mount Sinai, and every single letter has survived to this day. This position is patently false according to modern scholarship. It is also belied by a simple reading of the text itself, which differs stylistically from book to book and which itself hardly suggests Mosaic authorship! Indeed, it greatly undermines it at Deuteronomy 34.5, requiring an absurdly contortionistic effort by the Rabbis to deny the obvious. It is generally agreed that the full text of the Old Testament was compiled by 200 AD.

I will not discuss the Biblical stories now (I do recommend reading them if you are not familiar), but it will suffice to say that this nomadic tribe (traditionally, fresh from enslavement in Egypt) conquered Canaan/Palestine (what we now know as Israel), an area possibly including parts of present-day Lebanon. Infighting (described more or less accurately by the other 19 books of the Bible) among member tribes of the Kingdom of Israel was common, and by 700 BC the Assyrians had carved out a nice chunk of northern Israel. The Southern Kingdom (whose capital was Jerusalem) survived until it was captured by the Babylonians in 586 BC. A massive population transfer ensued, and the Jews did not return to Israel until 539 BC, after Persia had conquered Babylon. Thereafter, the Bible became the central Jewish document and biblical prophecy began to wane. The Macedonians under Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire in 331, effectively gaining control over Israel. Their attempt to "Hellenize" the Jews lead to the Maccabean revolt in 168 BC (commemorated by the modern Jewish holiday of Hanukkah). Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 63 BC (who called the area "Iudaea"), but the Jews rebelled ceaselessly. Nevertheless, the Roman/Byzantine empire held onto the region until 640 AD (!), at which time the Arabs captured the region. It changed (mostly Muslim) hands many times over the ensuing centuries, until it was captured by the British in 1917 and became an independent state in 1948.

But it is important to remember that under Roman (Pagan or Christian) and Muslim rule many Jews found the region inhospitable (Judaism was often banned) and left for other places. For almost two millennia, Rabbinic Judaism outside of Israel remained firmly in vogue; in place of temple sacrifices well-codified prayers were offered, and European Jewish schooling centralized into the institution known as the shul. Astoundingly voluminous commentaries on the Bible and commentaries on those commentaries and, remarkably, commentaries on those commentaries were written. A very rich and distinct Ashkenazic Jewish culture came into its own, producing an awesome lineage (whose members include such secular figures as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, Milton Friedman, and Leon Trotsky).

(To impress upon you the uniqueness of the culture, consider this passage from a New Republic article written by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker:
The appearance of an advantage in average intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews is easier to establish than its causes. Jews are remarkably over-represented in benchmarks of brainpower. Though never exceeding 3 percent of the American population, Jews account for 37 percent of the winners of the U.S. National Medal of Science, 25 percent of the American Nobel Prize winners in literature, 40 percent of the American Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, and so on. On the world stage, we find that 54 percent of the world chess champions have had one or two Jewish parents.

Does this mean that Jews are a nation of meinsteins? It does not. Their average IQ has been measured at 108 to 115, one-half to one standard deviation above the mean. But statisticians have long known that a moderate difference in the means of two distributions translates into a large difference at the tails. In the simplest case, if we have two groups of the same size, and the average of Group A exceeds the average of Group B by fifteen IQ points (one standard deviation), then among people with an IQ of 115 or higher the As will outnumber the Bs by a ratio of three to one, but among people with an IQ of 160 or higher the As will outnumber the Bs by a ratio of forty-two to one. Even if Group A was a fraction of the size of Group B to begin with, it would contribute a substantial proportion of the people who had the highest scores.
Why is this the case? That is beyond the purview of this post, but the article explores the issue.)

There are two lines of Jewish descent in what is known as the Jewish diaspora: The Sephardi line and the Ashkenazi line. "Sephardi" refers to those Jews who remained in the Middle East (or in areas under the control of the Muslim caliphate) -- it covers, among others, Spanish, North African, Persian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Jordanian Jews. "Ashkenazi" refers to European Jews. Racially, they are somewhat similar to gentile European populations. (And yet quite distinct -- see below.)

But the obvious question remains: How do Ashkenazi Jews today look almost indistinguishably Caucasian, remain genetically distinct, and yet derive from the Middle East? It's an immensely complex question, but what prompted this post was an interesting article about precisely that by Commentary's Hillel Halkkin. See this as well.

I should also note that Jews are not necessarily Israeli and that they do not necessarily have any connection whatever with the modern state of Israel or its culture. To give but one example, my father's family hails from Lithuania and Hungary, and my mother's, ultimately, from Poland and Russia. (But I cannot establish this with certainty, as my family has been in America for quite a long time.) I have utterly no cultural ties to modern Eastern Europe; I have never visited and probably never will. When people suggest that I am Israeli because I am Jewish, I cringe -- I have never been to Israel, let alone the Middle East. I am Jewish and American, and in spirit only Jewish and American.