February 05, 2006

Globed

My first article in the Boston Globe appeared today. Yay!

The Sensible Choice

Buried in the second-to-last paragraph of Richard Posner's recent essay in The New Republic is the first public expression of a solution I have long proposed to the controversy surrounding government wiretaps of private communications. Let the government wiretap to its heart's content with one proviso: the intelligence gathered can only be used in a terrorism case. Posner fomulates is thus:
Permit surveillance intended to detect and prevent terrorist activity but flatly forbid the use of information gleaned by such surveillance for any purpose other than to protect national security. So, if the government discovered, in the course of surveillance, that an American was not a terrorist but was evading income tax, it could not use the discovery to prosecute him for tax evasion or sue him for back taxes.
Isn't this the perfect solution?

January 15, 2006

Roots Rock Reggae

Just when you thought he couldn't get any bigger. Unless you've been living under a rock, you better know who Matisyahu is. If not, click here for my last post about him.

I was impressed a year ago when he showed up in full sartorial splendor on the front page of the Metro section. Slightly more so when he opened for Trey (is that confirmed?) and even more so when he was the only Orthodox Jew to play a reggae festival at Randal's Island (uh, yeah). And since trading my Metrocard for a Jetta, I've grown accustomed to hearing him on WBCN, the rock of Boston, urging on Moshiach.

And now: tomorrow night, Matisyahu is gonna be on Letterman. The first Jewish musician to ever achieve genuine crossover success is a black-clad Lubavitcher from Brooklyn. Whouda thunk?

December 17, 2005

Scientology's Top Gun

I was riveted by this story in the Los Angeles Times about Tom Cruise's role in scientology. By far, the craziest thing about this crazy "religion" is the seemingly lucid celebrities it has attracted, like Beck and Jenna Elfman. I once tried to figure out what scientology was about online, and found the experience rather unsatisfying, so I was especially grateful for this little nugget, which seems to sum it all up.

In his own spiritual life, Cruise has continued to climb the "Bridge to Total Freedom," Scientology's path to enlightenment. International Scientology News, a church magazine, reported last year that the actor had embarked on one of the highest levels of training, "OT VII" — for Operating Thetan VII.

At these higher levels — and at a potential cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars — Scientologists learn Hubbard's secret theory of human suffering, which he traces to a galactic battle waged 75 million years ago by an evil tyrant named Xenu.

According to court documents made public by The Times in the 1980s, Hubbard espoused the belief that Xenu captured the souls, or thetans, of enemies and electronically implanted false concepts in them to keep them confused about his dirty work. The goal of these advanced courses is to become aware of the trauma and free of its effects.

November 12, 2005

Absence makes the heart grow ....

Reading through some older posts and comments, I realized I miss blogging.

September 18, 2005

The armpit of New England

All the news and pictures coming out of New Orleans in recent weeks have made the region's poverty a major issue in the Hurrican Katrina saga. I was surprised to discover, however, that New Orleans is hardly the most impoverished city in the country. My own hometown of Hartford, CT, is actually poorer than New Orleans, according to a study cited in this Boston Globe story. (Yes, I have been reading the Globe since moving up here, but not for long).
To be sure, it is easy to read too much into the ''Southernness" of Katrina, and some historians warn that such a focus simply reinforces what they see as the centuries-old effort to use the South as a scapegoat, focusing on its ills while ignoring what are in fact national problems. There are other parts of the country, they note, that are just as poor-according to the 2000 Census, for example, Hartford, Conn., is poorer than New Orleans.

September 12, 2005

Anybody still listening?

Well, if you are, clap your hands and say 'yeah'.

So I took a little break from blogging. And I didn't make any announcement, which isn't cool. But I had a good excuse: Last week I moved to lovely Cambridge, Mass. to become the editor of a small (but soon to be legendary) newspaper on the north shore of Boston. I'm not going to offer the name, so as to maintain some boundary between my writing lives.

But I have not given up blogging and this post is to serve notice that I'm climbing back on the horse. My new responsibilities are manifold and I cannot make promises as to the frequency of my posts, but if any of my readers are still out there, please make yourselves known as I'm sure that will encourage me to check in more regularly. And as I do, I hope you will too.

August 26, 2005

Montessori

My long-awaited piece on Jewish Montessori schools came out in the Forward this week. Read it here.

(sorry -- it requires registration)

August 25, 2005

Restricting Speech

In the era of terrorism, both critics of the left and right acknowledge the existence of a continuum between civil liberties and effective counter-terrorism measures-- if you increase one you tend to get less of the other. Most of our debates boil down to an argument over where the line between the two should be drawn.

After London, the conservative punditocracy was outraged at how lax the Brits had become, allowing home-grown terror cells to germinate on English soil. But these criticisms, justified as they may be, fail to recognize the difficulty in acting against individuals who haven't actually done anything other than talk (a difficulty substantially reduced by Britain's new list of deportable terrorism-related offenses). Freedom of speech is a cherished ideal in Western democracies -- arguably, it is the ideal upon which all others rest.

Thankfully someone has finally acknowledged the problem. In an op-ed two weeks ago in the Times, Geoffrey Stone argues that even radical Islamists who rail against the government and extol the virtues of terrorism should be protected under the law. The distinction he draws is between speaking admirably of suicide bombing and outright incitement to violence. The former should be protected, the latter outlawed.

Stone's distinction is a hollow one. Islamists have declared war on the West and the growing roster of terrorist atrocities attest to their seriousness. A Muslim cleric who encourages suicidal terrorism is virtually indistinct from one who merely praises it. And yet, with those restrictions in place it becomes nearly impossible for a Muslim to severely criticize the government lest he be accused of inciting violence. But still, I think, it needs to be done. Noam Chomsky might make equally radical claims about the evils of British foreign policy or the legitimacy of terrorist grievances, but the fact is he has no followers with a distinguished history of putting those ideas into bloody practice. As is often the case, context matters.

This rather uncomfortable truth rubs up against another cherished democratic value, namely equality before the law. We shudder to think that a person's race or religion might be a factor in a court of law, or determine what views that person is permitted to express -- and rightly so. Guilt should be guilt, regardless of the ethnicity of the criminal.

What we are essentially weighing here is two competing democratic values -- free speech and color-blindedness -- and it is no simple matter to determine which should take precedence.

August 19, 2005

Dropping the Bomb

Here is Krauthammer's plan for dealing with Palestinian rocket attacks following the withdrawal from Gaza:

Israel should announce that henceforth any rocket launched from Palestinian territory will immediately trigger a mechanically automatic response in which five Israeli rockets will be fired back. There will be no human intervention in the loop. Every Palestinian rocket landing in Israel will instantly trigger sensors and preset counter-launchers. Any Palestinian terrorist firing up a rocket will know that he is triggering six: one Palestinian and five Israeli.

Israel would decide how these five would be programmed to respond. Perhaps three aimed at the launch site and vicinity and two at a list of predetermined military and strategic assets of the Palestinian militias.

The idea of automated bomb launches is frighteningly Strangelove-esque, but the principle of massive retaliation is the correct strategy, and the only one. Israel's only other recourse would be to reinvade Gaza and go after the rocket launchers itself, thus negating the significance of the withdrawal it is now completing, at great costs to the treasury and Israeli morale.

As almost everyone seems to agree, the withdrawal is an enormous opportunity for the Palestinians to demonstrate they can responsibly govern themselves. Whether or not Gaza becomes even more of a haven for terrorists than it already is will be a pretty reliable benchmark of their success. Unfortunately, as they have time and again throughout their tortured history, the Palestinians are setting themselves up for failure, seemingly so comfortable playing the victims that they are incapable of taking responsibility for their own future. Their two most articulate spokespeople have been assiduously laying the groudwork for the excuses to come when the PA fails to step up to the plate, telling the media all week that the disengagement is meaningless -- at best an empty gesture while Israel continues to control the borders and airspace; at worst, a cover for a major landgrab in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Hamas has been busy claiming victory for bombing the Israelis out and promising more of the same, while the UN has been so preoccupied with financing anti-Israel propaganda that they have neglected to explore the development opportunities posed by Israel's abandonment of miles of prime Gaza beachfront real estate. And Abbas, well, where the hell has Abbas been?

After nearly four decades of occupation, dismantling the Palestinian culture of victimhood is proving far more difficult than dismantling the terrorist networks that pose the greatest threat to Palestinian self-governance and Israeli security. At this rate, I predict 5 rockets will be landing somewhere in Gaza by the middle of next week.

August 05, 2005

The Vanishing

Take 100 Orthodox Jews, 100 Modern Orthodox Jews, 100 Conservative Jews, 100 Reform Jews and 100 Unaffiliated Jews. In four generations, how many will be left of each?

According to a new study based on current intermarriage and birth rates, 100 Orthodox Jews will yield a staggering 2,588 Jews! Modern Orthodox fare slightly less well, with 346 Jews. For Conservative, Reform and Unaffiliated, the projections are downright disheartening. After four generations there will be 24, 13 and 5 left respectively.

There are a couple of obvious problems with this study -- current intermarriage and birth rates will not necessarily remain constant; there is no evidence that the offspring of each denomination will remain in that denomination; there is no accounting for other factors that might actually lead to growth in the numbers of Reform and Conservative Jews.

And then there's the biggest problem of all -- this is not news. Even with its methodological and conceptual flaws, the thrust of the study is basically correct. Orthodox Jews are far better at increasing their numbers than non-Orthodox Jews. A far more interesting question is therefore what effect this will have on the demographics of the Jewish people. Over time, the Orthodox will substantially increase their representation as a fraction of total world Jewry, a development that has serious implications for Jewish communal life. The authors of the study would have contributed much more to our understanding by addressing that question than by interpreting the numbers as an ode to the virtues of Orthodox education.

August 03, 2005

Bad News

If there's any doubt that Richard Posner is one of America's most indispensible public intellectuals, his essay in this week's Times Book Review should dispel it. Posner expertly untangles the issues surrounding the decline in both the reputation and the audience of the mainstream media (or MSM in blogger parlance), and he does so with a shrewd cost-based analysis. It is not fundamental biases or the general coarsening of our public discourse that have degraded the news media's reputation, but shifting cost structures. In short, given the declining costs of putting out a newspaper of producing a news broadcast, media outlets can turn a profit with a smaller audience. That in turn leads them to abandon their longstanding attempts to capture the elusive middle ground, making it inevitable that they will be more niche-oriented, more partisan, and more polarized. And increased polarization explains the most curious aspect of the current media wars -- both liberals and conservatives feel the other side is biased against it.

The proliferation of media outlets means the market is more competitive, and markets being what they are, more options means a greater likelihood that consumers will have their needs catered to. Those needs, the evidence suggests, is less for informed commentary than for entertainment and for validation of pre-existing prejudices. Hence, Fox News. Or blogs.

Journalists accuse bloggers of having lowered standards. But their real concern is less high-minded - it is the threat that bloggers, who are mostly amateurs, pose to professional journalists and their principal employers, the conventional news media. A serious newspaper, like The Times, is a large, hierarchical commercial enterprise that interposes layers of review, revision and correction between the reporter and the published report and that to finance its large staff depends on advertising revenues and hence on the good will of advertisers and (because advertising revenues depend to a great extent on circulation) readers. These dependences constrain a newspaper in a variety of ways. But in addition, with its reputation heavily invested in accuracy, so that every serious error is a potential scandal, a newspaper not only has to delay publication of many stories to permit adequate checking but also has to institute rules for avoiding error - like requiring more than a single source for a story or limiting its reporters' reliance on anonymous sources - that cost it many scoops.

Blogs don't have these worries. Their only cost is the time of the blogger, and that cost may actually be negative if the blogger can use the publicity that he obtains from blogging to generate lecture fees and book royalties. Having no staff, the blogger is not expected to be accurate. Having no advertisers (though this is changing), he has no reason to pull his punches. And not needing a large circulation to cover costs, he can target a segment of the reading public much narrower than a newspaper or a television news channel could aim for. He may even be able to pry that segment away from the conventional media. Blogs pick off the mainstream media's customers one by one, as it were.

Posner also makes quick work of the most frequent criticism of blogs, that they play fast and loose with the facts:

The charge by mainstream journalists that blogging lacks checks and balances is obtuse. The blogosphere has more checks and balances than the conventional media; only they are different. The model is Friedrich Hayek's classic analysis of how the economic market pools enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its participants.

In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise - not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It's as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.

July 22, 2005

The Sky is Falling

Tomorrow, New York City police officers are set to randomly inspect bags being brought onto the subway. It is an unprecedented move in the face of an unprecedented threat. Unfortunately, political correctness ensures that the NYPD will be looking at elderly grandmothers just as carefully as twenty-something Muslim men, according to this Times account.

People who do not submit to a search will be allowed to leave, but will not be permitted into the subway station. The police commissioner said officers would take pains to avoid singling people out for searches based on race or ethnicity.

"No racial profiling will be allowed," Mr. Kelly said. "It's against our policies. But it will be a systematized approach."

He added, "We'll give some very specific and detailed instructions to our officers on how to do it in accordance with our laws and the Constitution."


This confounds the brain. It is an indisputable fact that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks of this type are committed by young Muslim men. How is it racist to be more concerned over a young Muslim with a bag than with a middle-aged white woman? Ray Kelly is way smarter than this and I can only pray he was saying what reporters want to hear.

Lucky for Kelly, his critics are even more insipid.

"The police can and should be aggressively investigating anyone they suspect is trying to bring explosives into the subway," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. "However, random police searches of people without any suspicion of wrongdoing are contrary to our most basic constitutional values. This is a very troubling announcement."

Please explain this one to me. When you board an aircraft, they search you even if you haven't done anything wrong. But doing it in the subway is unconstitutional? As I've confessed before, I'm not a constitutional lawyer, so perhaps it is, though I can't for the life of me imagine why. It's one thing to stop someone walking down the street, quite another when they try to enter the mass transit system. And if, due to some unimaginable legal precept, it is in fact unconstitional, that should merely serve to accelerate a long overdue debate we must have over the applicability of principles drafted over 200 years ago to the fight against terror. If checking bags when you enter the subway is counter to the Constitution, then it's the latter that has to bend.

July 19, 2005

craigslist

I had a succesful sale of an old bookshelf today and the guy sent me this nice note:

Subject: Thank you

For being patient, and more than reasonable. Two tortoises have a bigger apartment now. Happy living!

~Kevin

Modern Love

Some dedicated readers may recall a post from several months back that inagurated my infatuation with the Modern Love column in the Times Style section. The piece that did me in was a tale of one blogger dating another blogger who was cheating on blogger #1 with still a third blogger. Blogger #1 tracked blogger #2's infidelities on the website of blogger #3. Confused?

This week's installment is a similar tale, this time of a woman who tracks her nannies drug use and sex adventures on the nanny's blog. The story is here, the nanny's blog here. Quick link to nanny's fantasies of Tucker Carlson here.

July 12, 2005

New Republic

TNR has had a string of great content on its site, particulary these two pieces. The first is a chronicle of the murderous career of Che Guevara, the poster child for leftist revolutionaries the world over and now the favored icon of capitalist chic. Though there is little in this piece that hasn't been known previously, its publication is particularly prescient at a time when celebrities of all stripes have taken to wearing Che's likeness on t-shirts despite his history of cold-blooded killing.

In January 1957, as his diary from the Sierra Maestra indicates, Guevara shot Eutimio Guerra because he suspected him of passing on information: "I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.... His belongings were now mine." Later he shot Aristidio, a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on. While he wondered whether this particular victim "was really guilty enough to deserve death," he had no qualms about ordering the death of Echevarría, a brother of one of his comrades, because of unspecified crimes: "He had to pay the price." At other times he would simulate executions without carrying them out, as a method of psychological torture.


The second piece is a roundup of contemporary conservative opinion on evolution. Some representative snippets:

Tucker Carlson, MSNBC

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I think God's responsible for the existence of the universe and everything in it. ... I think God is probably clever enough to think up evolution. ... It's plausible to me that God designed evolution; I don't know why that's outside the realm. It's not in my view."

William Kristol, The Weekly Standard

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I don't discuss personal opinions. ... I'm familiar with what's obviously true about it as well as what's problematic. ... I'm not a scientist. ... It's like me asking you whether you believe in the Big Bang."

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "I managed to have my children go through the Fairfax, Virginia schools without ever looking at one of their science textbooks."

Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I've never understood how an eye evolves."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "Put me down for the intelligent design people."

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "The real problem here is that you shouldn't have government-run schools. ... Given that we have to spend all our time crushing the capital gains tax I don't have much time for this issue."


And finally, as evidence of why the non-ideological Charles Krauthammer is one of the very few conservative writers worth reading, I offer this:

Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "Of course."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "At most, interesting."

Whether intelligent design should be taught in public schools: "The idea that [intelligent design] should be taught as a competing theory to evolution is ridiculous. ... The entire structure of modern biology, and every branch of it [is] built around evolution and to teach anything but evolution would be a tremendous disservice to scientific education. If you wanna have one lecture at the end of your year on evolutionary biology, on intelligent design as a way to understand evolution, that's fine. But the idea that there are these two competing scientific schools is ridiculous."

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