30 December 2011

The Problem of Free Will II: Limited Autonomy

Let us return to the first proposition of my friend the skeptic:

"Every human thought is in principle a pre-determined consequence of biochemical processes that are themselves determined by evolution, the course of which is pre-determined by chemistry and physics. Therefore, there is no such thing as free will."

At first, it appears that the question of Free Will is an "either/or" proposition. Either we have Free Will, or we don't. What we actually experience, however is freedom within the constraints of our abilities. For example, you may be free to desire whatever you can imagine, but you are not free to desire what you can't imagine. The limits of your own imagination are the limits of what you can want, or will. I concede that the limits on our Free Will are pre-determined by our genetic makeup combined with our experience and our situation in the world. But within those limits, determinism is dead.

Determinism is based on the notion that if we could know the positions and velocities of every particle in the Universe we could, in principle, calculate the entire future evolution of the Universe. This idea was born from the structure of Newton's equations of motion and held sway for over 200 years, until the 1920's. Then we found out that very small particles begin to exhibit behavior that is masked by the sheer size of large ones. It turns out that the process of precisely measuring a particle's position destroys information about its velocity, and vice versa. That is to say, measuring exactly where a particle is gives it such a whack that we can no longer know where it's going, and measuring exactly where it's going can only be done via interactions that "smear out" where it is. That the position and velocity of a particle cannot simultaneously take on precise values is a statement of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and seems to be a fundamental limitation on the measurability of reality.
If the Uncertainty Principle struck Determinism a mortal blow in the 1920s, nonlinear dynamics delivered the coup de grace in the 1980s. The nonlinear dynamicists finally had the desperation, the courage, and the methods to tackle some of the really hard problems of Classical Mechanics (the branch of physics that deals with the motion of ordinary sized things and is described by Newton's equations). They found that even for relatively simple systems, like three bodies moving under mutual gravitational attraction, the future motion can depend so sensitively on the given conditions at any moment (positions and velocities) that the detailed motion of the system is unpredictable (or chaotic) - not only because classical measurements are only finitely precise, but because of the limitations imposed by the Uncertainty Principle as well. In other words, the Universe is not nearly as well-behaved as a wind-up clock. The Universe is not a machine or a mechanism, as we understand machines and mechanisms. Determinism is dead.

How dead is it? Consider that three bodies moving under their mutual gravitational attraction have 6 degrees of freedom per body (their positions along any three perpendicular directions in space, and their velocities along those directions). These three bodies are a system with 18 degrees of freedom whose motion is unpredictable in principle. Now consider that the human brain has about 100 billion neurons, each with about 10,000 interconnections to other neurons, each of which is a degree of freedom for that neuron. The human brain is a system with at least a quadrillion degrees of freedom. The idea of trying to predict the state of a living human brain is ludicrous. 

And that's just classically. Quantum mechanically, the wave function of each neuron in your brain extends throughout the whole universe. True, the far reaches of that wave function have very low values. But I include it to emphasize the fundamental impossibility of knowing all the influences on the state of the brain. 

Now the three gravitating bodies will under certain circumstances, stay within some enveloping region of space. Within that region, it is impossible to predict where they will be over the long term. But they will be (almost completely) somewhere within that region. They are free within that constraint.

Similarly, you are free to think and to desire whatever you want within the constraints of your being human at a certain time and place. That is to say, you have Free Will within limits. You are free to will anything possible. You are free even to will the impossible. But you are not free to will the unimaginable, because you don't know what it is. This is Limited Freedom, rather than an Absolute Freedom. The limits are set only by human nature and physical reality. At least, until we figure out how to change them.

So the dichotomy between Absolute Freedom and being an automaton is false. There is space for freedom with the constraints of being in this Universe. It puts us in a situation that seems paradoxical to absolutists who insist on Free Will as an all-or-nothing proposition. As Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, "We have to believe in Free Will. We have no choice."

16 November 2011

The Problem of Free Will I: Is anybody there?

"Every human thought is in principle a pre-determined consequence of biochemical processes that are themselves determined by evolution, the course of which is pre-determined by chemistry and physics. Therefore, there is no such thing as free will. In fact, there is no such thing as consciousness. What appear to be sentient beings are just automata that give the illusion of consciousness."

I feel frustrated, even enraged when I hear or read statements like this, whether from scientists and non-scientists. Such a statement is equivalent to saying that the Universe and everything in it is dead — even ourselves. It implicitly permits the most outrageous disregard of everything and everyone, even one's one children. After all, what harm is there in neglecting or even killing that which never was, and never could be really alive?

I'm outraged when people make such statements, because it is that easy and that quick to show that such statements would have grossly immoral consequences, were people to take them seriously. I'm frustrated when people make such statements, because they are wrong. For the rest of this thread, I would like to show you why.

Let's start with basic philosophy. To whom do automata give the illusion of consciousness? This is not just a semantic game. An illusion cannot have itself, nor can an automaton have one. The very idea of an illusion pre-supposes the idea of consciousness on the part of someone. That is, you must be conscious in order to have the illusion (the false awareness) that you are conscious. You might be semi-comatose and in a dream-like state, but that is still a state of consciousness. In fact, consciousness is the prime datum of philosophy, both Western (self-awareness as in Descartes' "I think, therefore I am") and Eastern (a generalized oceanic awareness).

Consciousness is also the prime datum of science. The discipline of science is to get ever more precise and accurate data into one's consciousness, so that one can discover and then test relationships among the data. If you reject the datum of your own self-awareness, then you can claim that anything I do to demonstrate the contrary is unreal, an illusion (which you must be conscious to experience, but since I must be wrong, logic must not apply). That is to say, rejecting the datum of your own consciousness is unfalsifiable, and therefore unscientific. Because science accepts only statements that are falsifiable (capable of being proved wrong), in principle, by some sort of observation (a means of getting data into consciousness) or experiment (a controlled means of getting data into consciousness). Science is thus a way to get to know by successive approximations (trial and error) those aspects of reality amenable to its methods.

In short, claiming that we are unconscious is unscientific, unphilosophic and leads to logical contradictions. And that is, as mathematicians say, "what was to be proven," Quod Erat Demonstrandum, QED.

Of course, it is possible that my friend mis-spoke. Perhaps what he really wanted to deny is the reality of the self. Here he might be on firmer ground, because Buddhism claims that an individual's sense of self is illusory. That is to say, that your own little sense of self is an illusion entertained by part of the Universal Self.

I think what the Buddhists are trying to say, however imprecisely, is that you are not your personality. Indeed, you build your personality on the foundation of your temperament in order to have an interface with the people and the world around you. You use your personality to relate to yourself, as well. The Buddhist koan, "Show me the face you had before your parents were born," is a demand to experience and relate to reality directly, without the intermediary of your personality.

But that doesn't mean that your personality is unreal. If you build a bicycle, the bicycle is no less real for your having built it. If you write a piece of software, the software is no less real for your having written it, or for it being the expression of your ideas. Similarly, your personality is your real creation, more intricate and grander than any art or literature ever created. It isn't an illusion. It just isn't all there is to you. And if your personality changes over time in response to your circumstances, so what? You might want to make changes to the bicycle you built as you grow, or as you age. So too, you may change your personality, albeit with some difficulty, and sometimes with the aid of a psychotherapist.

Having dealt with consciousness, we now turn to the thornier problem of free will. What my friend above should have been trying to establish was not the solipsistic ideas that we are unconscious or have no personalities, but rather the idea that although we are conscious, we only have the illusion of free will. We may be self-aware, but all our thoughts and actions are pre-determined reactions to preceding stimuli. We only think that we actually decide anything. This will be the topic of the next post in this thread.

07 November 2011

A Taxonomy of World Religions

According to their Hermeneutics of Fecal Occurrence
by Author Identity Requested

This has circulated over the net in many versions. Here's ours, with contributions from Scooper, Andy Busch, MM, RF, and others.

TAOISM S__t happens.
CONFUCIANISM Confucius say: "S__t happens."
BUDDHISM S__t doesn't really happen. It is only called s__t happening.
What is the sound of one s__t happening?
SIKHISM Cut that s__t out, or we'll cut it out of you!
HINDUISM This s__t has happened before.
PLATONISM This s__t will happen again.
JAINISM When it happens, s__t gently. Don't hurt the s__t.
SHINTO If s__t happens, put a flower in it. Make a pretty offering.
HARE KRISHNA ...s__t happens, s__t happens, s__t happens...
MOONIES Only happy s__t really happens.
WICCA S__t happens if you will it to happen.
ISLAM S__t happens because Allah wills it.
SUFISM Even though s__t happens, Allah wants you to dance.
PROTESTANTISM Let s__t happen to someone else.
JUDAISM Why does this s__t always happen to us?
CATHOLICISM You deserve this s__t.
Vatican II
If s__t happens, blame the clergy.
PRESBYTERIANISM S__t should happen decently and in good order.
CALVINISM S__t is predestined to happen because you don't work hard enough.
7TH DAY ADVENTISM No s__t on Saturdays.
TORONTO BLESSING Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, s__t happens, ha-ha-ha-ha....
ANGLICANISM Scripture contains all things necessary to deal with s__t happening.
ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM We still favor happenings of state-supported s__t.
FUNDAMENTALISM Unless you're one of us, you're s__t.
S__t won't happen for you until you're totally immersed in it.
S__t happens! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
METAPHYSICS In terms of materialistic ontogeny, we're all s__t.
NEW AGE When s__t happens, channel it. Visualise s__t happening.
S__t happening is an act of the Goddess.
Feminist Separatism
When s__t happens, blame men.
Men's Movement
Drums & fire make s__t happen hot & loud.
RASTAFARIANISM Let';s smoke this s__t!
Bud Lightism
S__t happens... I love you, man!
EXISTENTIALISM S__t is, therefore it happens.
JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES If you just let me in, I'll tell you why s__t happens.
MORMONISM If s__t happens, make sure you have a 2-year food supply.
RAJNEESH For $1000, s__t can happen for you, too.
HEDONISM There's nothing like a good s__t happening!
STOICISM This s__t is good for me.
ZOROASTRIANISM Bad s__t happens half the time. The rest of the time, it's good.
Don't burn that s__t — fire is sacred!
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE This s__t is all in your mind.
BAHA'I S__t happens to everyone alike.
UNITARIANISM If there is a s__t, let it happen to each in his/her own way.
AGNOSTICISM Maybe s__t happens, and maybe it doesn't.
Who gives a s__t?
ATHEISM No s__t!

Republicans When s__t happens, stare like a deer in the headlights. Or invade a country that had nothing to do with it. Or both.
Democrats When s__t happens, deny it. Or else weasel your way out of it with double talk, as in, "It depends on what the meaning of 's__t' is."
NRA S__t will happen when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.
NRA-Ted Nugent Style Before you grill s__t, you gotta kill s__t!      

05 November 2011

Give Cain a Chance

It appears that someone from the Rick Perry campaign has leaked that someone in the past may have accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment. If any other political office were at stake, I would be interested. But this is the Presidency of the United States of America. Neither Herman Cain nor Rick Perry have done anything that Bill Clinton didn't do. In fact, Bill Clinton was accused of doing worse. But Bill Clinton was a pretty good president. So, I give both Cain and Perry a Clinton pass on this one. I recommend that you do the same.

The nation stands on a precipice regarding its power to influence world events in its favor, while the media focusses on the banal and the trivial. The media are not serving us well. There are other, better reasons to reject or to consider either of these men for the office they seek.

And there are other, more important stories to follow, like crony capitalism on the part of both Democrats and Republicans, the gerrymandering that undermines the foundations of our Republic, and the proliferation of rules and laws that undermine the Rule of Law itself.

14 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street: The Real Story

The Occupy Wall Street people seem to have no clear idea of what they want and why they are occupying anything. It turns out, however, that they may have more of a point than they realize. Take a look at this Science News article entitled, "Financial World Dominated by a Few Deep Pockets." Researchers have determined that 40% of all the world's wealth in the financial markets is controlled by 147 corporations. You download a PDF of their original paper, "The Network of Global Corporate Control," at arxiv.org.

These 147 corporations (mostly investment banks and brokerage firms) are highly interconnected. This has a number of policy implications. First, when one goes down, it can take the others with it — this can destabilize the entire global economy. And regulators in any one nation are pretty powerless to do anything about it. Second, those who want to forecast market conditions might do better to scrap their statistical models and just monitor what these 147 are doing.

What they are doing is properly the subject of further study, but I'll take a guess, which brings us to a third policy implication. I think they are concentrating wealth. True, they redistribute some wealth to buy off the forces that would try to take control of them if they concentrated wealth too fast, or too intensively. And if they really mess up, they might redistribute a lot of wealth (or a lot of debt in the case of Lehman). They give us little guys some chance to get our small cut. But over my lifetime, the average net flow has been away from the middle class in places like the US and Europe. I assume that it's been toward the big players. But that's a subject for further study as I said.

The concentration of wealth and the flows of wealth enabled by globalization and high-speed networking are things worth watching, by national policy makers acting together around the world. It is also worth watching by investors. Maybe they should learn more about their investments and actually vote their shares.

08 October 2011

Mother Doesn't Live Here Anymore

In 1959, when I was a child, our family house looked like this:

Fifty years later, in 2009, when Mother died and we sold the place, it looked like this:

I guess my parents were inspired by the style of houses in Colonial Williamsburg. The two-story white houses with the green shutters, the old trees, and the hedges. Even their silverware was from Colonial Williamsburg, as was a pewter mug they had bought. Perhaps the look was out of place in our part of Appalachia, but we liked it, and the neighbors grew to like it, too, as they grew to like Mother.

Now it looks like this:

The giant old oak is gone from the front yard, as are the hedges, the eagle over the front door, and the green shutters.  Gone is the stone patio and fireplace that the owner previous to us built with one of his neighbors in back of the house. Gone, too are the stone walkways in the front yard, and the old-fashioned lamp post by the driveway. The rose Mother transplanted from her parents house when they died in the 1960s has been pulled out. No more Colonial Williamsburg. After more than half a century, the property looks more like it belongs to its Appalachian locale.

The neighbors, long-time family friends all, are taking some time to get used to it. Every time they look at it, it screams at them that Mother doesn't live here anymore.

To me, it looks as if we had never lived there. To me, it says that there comes a time for all of us when we can't go home again. And that, if we have the hubris to leave behind any monuments to our past, we had best not look back.

Now new children play in the yard, filling the place with with memories that will seem magical to them in years to come, because it will have been their childhood home.

02 October 2011

A Message from Lance Armstrong

Your chance of getting cancer increases roughly as the third power of your age. It doesn't matter who you are, where you live, what you eat or drink. Cancer is rough to live with, and even rougher to die from. Whatever else you can say about Lance, he's serious about his campaign to beat cancer. Maybe you think he's a cheat. But at a time when his accusers say that everyone was cheating, that means the playing field was still level - the competition was still equalized. Whatever he did, it was below the level of detection, which is all any detection system can guarantee. I think he's a little bit crazy for living and training the way you have to live and train to win the Tour de France, year after year. And I think he's a hero, who made the journey from dying to winning. But I think he's a hero especially because of his Livestrong Foundation work. Now... what do I have to wear that's yellow?

30 September 2011

The Next Christian Martyr?

The government of Iran is about to execute Youcef Nadarkharni for the crime of being a Christian Pastor in a Muslim country. If the mullahs go through with it, he will not be the first Christian martyr, not even in modern Iran, nor will he be the last. Unlike those jihadi-takfiris who murder themselves and as many others as they can find and pretend to be martyrs, we will witness Iranian clerics making a real martyr of a man for the simple reason that he is called to worship the same God as they, but in a different manner — the manner of a Christian.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide is monitoring the case. You can click here to help.

Update 10/1/2011: The Iranian government is changing their story. Now they claim they are going to execute him for the "security-related" crimes of rape and extortion, rather than the crimes of "turning his back on Islam," and "converting Muslims to Christianity," which were the only crimes mentioned in the court documents from his so-called trial. We note here that Mr. Nadarkhani claimed he was never a Muslim before he became a Christian. Look, the bloody-minded mullahs of Iran just want to kill this guy, never mind the precise charges. Kind of reminds you of the Crucifixion, doesn't it?

Update 10/3/2011: Now the Iranian government has added the charge of being a Zionist, which makes him a traitor to the government, one of the most serious charges that can be made against a person in Iran. They are getting really serious about killing this person, this husband, this father. You can tell by the way they are trying to make themselves feel good about it. Where are the protests about this?

If the Iranian government executes Youcef Nararkhani, then they will be cursed by the Blind Chihuahua even more so than they already are. Feel free to tell them so.

24 September 2011

Happy New Year

This coming Thursday is Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the New Year 5772 of the Hebrew Calendar. Yes, Jews, although never particularly numerous in comparison to many other peoples, have been around as long as civilization. Religious Jews believe themselves chosen by God to live according to God's commandments. Such special election does not imply that Jews think themselves better than anyone else, or entitled to special considerations from anyone else. It implies that Jews believe themselves to exist to keep God's commandments, and that God's promise to them is that as long as they keep God's commandments, they will continue to exist as a distinct people.

Keeping God's commandments can get complicated, because many of them were written down thousands of years ago in circumstances that no longer exist in this world. Therefore, keeping the commandments has become a matter of interpretation and debate, which has lasted for nearly two thousand years. The Talmud records several centuries of detailed discussion and commentary regarding how one can best live in fulfillment of God's commandments in a changing world.

But one of the commandments is to live in accord with God's commandments joyfully. So, Happy New Year, Shana Tova, everyone!

20 September 2011

Should the UN recognize a Palestinian State?

How about a quid pro quo? How about requiring that the Palestinians and the other neighbors of Israel recognize Israel as a Jewish state? That is, until the Arab world recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, what is really being proposed is a "one state" solution...

19 September 2011

Theodicy Part 3: God is Better than Perfect

In parts 1 and 2 we established that the Universe is such that we are free to live our lives without God, and that the Universe is self-consistent. These two related properties combine to allow us to make our way in the world, and to frustrate us into doing so.

I use the word "frustrate" in a specific sense. The late psychologist Donald Winnicott developed the concept of the "good-enough" mother — the ordinary, devoted mother, who creates a secure enough environment for her child, yet is not "perfect" from her child's point of view, because she can not or will not satisfy the child's every wish. This "frustrates" the child enough to begin trying to do things for itself, and to establish its own identity apart from its mother. In this sense, "good enough" beats "perfect" hands down. A child with a good enough mother becomes a functioning adult. A child with a perfect mother remains dependent all its life.

Perhaps the entire question of theodicy stems from God being imperfect from our point of view. We want God to take care of our every want or need, to guard us from every harm. We might regard that as perfect, but we would be less than human. All we would be capable of is wanting and needing. Under such circumstances, who among us would be capable of doing or creating, and who would want to? Perhaps God is "good enough" to let us have a little space and time to become ourselves, which means that God better than perfect.

Yes, the Universe is a rough place. But within the constraints of freedom from God and self-consistency, could you come up with a better one? To quote Bob Dylan, "The answer, my friend, is blown' in the wind" — as God speaks it from the whirlwind in the Book of Job, chapters 38 and 39, of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

18 September 2011

Springtime for Cairo

A little ditty to commemorate the pogrom in Cairo, September 9, 2011:
Tune: Springtime for Hitler

The Arab Spring was having trouble, what a sad sad story
Needed some old scapegoats to bring it back to glory
Where, O where were they? And how to make them pay?
We looked around and then we found
The powers we must slay.
And now its ...

Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli,
Tunis is happy and gay
We know now just how we cannot lose
Go out, and burn out those dirty Jews!

Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli,
Winter for Jews and the West
Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli
Come on, Arabs, and give it your best

I was born in old Aswan, my hate for Jews goes on and on
Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Hamas party

Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli
Burn the embassy of Israel today
Tanks rolling on the sands again
Egypt is in good hands again

Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli
Jew-hate is flaring once more
Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli
Means that soon we'll be going
We've got to be going
You know we'll be going to war!

If this offends anyone, all I can say is, "Es tut mir Leid," which is German for, "I'm sorry." I don't mean to criticize Arabs generally. I do mean to recommend that the Arab Spring achieve freedom and dignity for Arabs (both Muslims and non-Muslims) without diminishing the freedom and dignity of anyone else.

11 September 2011

Ten Years After

Ten years ago today I got a phone call from my niece. "Turn on your television!" she shouted. "Somebody flew jet planes into the World Trade Center!" I did as she said. The networks showed replays of the second plane impact. It looked like terrorism to me, and it looked like they had engineering help.

At that time, I was involved in scientific and engineering support of efforts to counter the spread and mitigate the consequences of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the terrorists had used WMD, my group might have been called. It was a relatively small step from what I had been doing to scientific and technological support of homeland security and counter-terrorism.

"I have to go to work," I said.

What else I thought that day and the day after, is in this blog.

Today, I just want to make a case for the superiority of the Western Way of Justice to that of Jihadi-Takfiris (aka Islamo-Fascist terrorists and their sympathizers) who think that it is justice to kill any Westerners in any numbers that they can, for whatever set of grievances on which they fixate on any given day. If we Westerners believed in a theory of justice like theirs, there wouldn't be any Muslims in the West. Our way is superior - case closed.

And it is therefore case closed that our way must prevail. We need to find a way to fight the war of the Civilized World against the Jihadi-Takfiris (or Islamo-Fascists) less expensively, so we can stay in it for as long as it takes. Decades, perhaps generations. Until all the world's people, especially women, are free to act, speak, and dress as they choose, until all the world's governments are answerable to their people, and until all the world accepts that it is just to punish people only for crimes that they themselves have actually committed.

I'm still at work, even though I've changed fields again. And I intend to keep on working on it, even after I officially retire.

05 September 2011

Theodicy Part 2. Self-Consistency is a Bitch

At the end of Part 1, we took it as a self-evident axiom that the Universe is such that we are free to live our lives without reference (or deference) to any concept of God, gods, or divinity. In practice this means that if God exists, God refrains from jumping in to fix the Universe every time it functions in some way that causes us suffering. It means that we are on our own, except possibly for events so rare that the vast majority of us remain free to live without God nearly all our lives. Miracles may happen, but not so often that many of us can count on them.

This would be a mess if the Universe were random and unpredictable. An animal presented with aversive stimuli at random intervals, independently of its own behavior, soon cowers in its cage, suffering from what Seligman called "learned helplessness." Fortunately, the Universe is predictable in the following sense: it is self-consistent. Another name for self-consistency is the law of cause and effect.

Self-consistency has a positive side. It allows the Universe to function according to rules that we have been able to discover and to use to our benefit. We have developed agriculture, heating and air conditioning, cures to diseases, antiseptics and anesthetics for surgery, and so on. We have grown in autonomy and power as we have grown in scientific and technological knowledge. Consequently, we have grown in our average material well-being, worldwide. And these gains can be preserved and enlarged, because the world population is stabilizing.

On the negative side, self-consistency makes the Universe a rough place. It turns out that gravity is probably a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics and the existence of quantum fields like photons, leptons and baryons. In other words, if you want to have light to see by, a planet to stand on, and air to breathe, then self-consistency demands that the Universe be subject to the law of increasing entropy. Which means that things must run down. Which means that you (along with everything in the Universe, including the Universe itself) have to die someday.

To a religious person, it might seem as if we have been dumped into this Universe, where bad things happen, and where we do bad things to each other. God has dropped us from his embrace, kicked us out of Eden. This feels like a punishment, and theologians have rationalized that it happens because we deserve it. Or rather, our earliest ancestors did something to deserve it, which changed them in some way that we have inherited, which makes us deserve it also.

Any abandoned child will try to figure out what it did to cause its abandonment, so as to make amends and get its parent back. It is too threatening to think of the parent as bad, because the parent is the only one who can guarantee child's survival. So the child thinks that it must be bad, and that it must do something good to attract the parent to care for the child again. That, without commenting on its truth, is the level of explanation of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and why the doctrine has such mythic, psychological power.

The truth of the doctrine of Original Sin is as a primitive, or rather primal, descriptive psychology. We act like the Doctrine says we act. We often treat ourselves, each other, and the world around us and its inhabitants badly, and we live most aspects of our lives as if God does not exist. Even those of us who are regularly attend church, synagogue, or mosque.

If we are being punished for it, the punishment was around long before we were. The overwhelming weight of the evidence is that evolution is the response of populations of living things to suffering and death. We humans are one instance of that ongoing response. For a religious person, that means that God used suffering and death to create humans. The Human Condition is not so much a punishment as an opportunity.

And, as I argued in the third paragraph of this section, we have taken advantage of that opportunity, at least in a material sense. We are beginning to do very well indeed. We have gone from a population of perhaps a few tens to 7 billion in just 200,000 years by learning to use the self-consistency of the Universe to change our world in our favor. This has been devastating to the world's mega-fauna, including the other human species (e.g. the Neanderthals - perhaps playing the original role of Abel, with our ancestors as Cain) with which we once shared this planet, but I'll just chalk that up to Original Sin for now.

On to Part 3.

15 August 2011

Theodicy Part 1. All Things Dull and Ugly

I've allowed myself to be seduced into thinking about our (US, world) dysfunctional politics and going off the main topic of this blog: Religion, Science, and Society. Of course, as a theoretical physicist, I'm arrogant enough to think I have something worthwhile to say on almost anything, but I actually participate in those three things. So, to get back on topic, I'll let the dysfunctional politics remind me of theodicy - also known as the Problem of Evil.

Specifically, how can believers claim that God is the sole Creator of everything that exists, is all-knowing, is always present everywhere, and is also completely and uniquely Good — when there is so much Evil in the world?

The problem is thousands of years old, but I think the most entertaining statement of it is given by Monty Python in their memorable parody of the Christian children's hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful:

Whatever else you can say about living in this Universe, it is simply the case that sh_t happens. You can even classify religions according to their Hermeneutics of Fecal Occurrence. Evil, in its natural (e.g., disasters, diseases, pain) and moral (e.g.,violence, crime, discrimination) varieties is woven into the fabric of our reality. If God is the ultimate source of everything that exists, isn't that ultimately God's doing? Does the existence of Evil mean that either God is not completely Good, or that God does not exist?

Having stated the Problem, let's make some observations from which we can ground our reasoning. The first one that I can think of is that it is possible for atheists to lead enjoyable and fulfilling lives, and die peaceful and dignified deaths. You can get through your entire life in this Universe without reference to any God, gods, supernatural influences or religious experiences of any sort.

Three hundred years of modern science backs this up and takes it a step further: All the progress science has made thus far has come about by scientists (even those who have been religious believers) avoiding the hypothesis that God is the immediate cause of this or that, and proposing some other immediate cause instead. Not only is the hypothesis of God unnecessary — in some contexts, it's a hindrance.

We might therefore accept as an axiom that the Universe is such that we are free to live our lives without reference (or deference) to any concept of a God, gods, or divinity.

For religious believers, this appears to be God's Will. On to part 2.

08 August 2011

Deja Vu

I became a supervisor at Bell Labs around the time the AT&T telephone monopoly was broken up in 1984. IBM had fought off a similar lawsuit, but the AT&T management agreed to settle their suit by divesting the Bell Operating Companies — their only direct connection to their end customers. The AT&T guys figured they were bright enough to compete and win in the computer business. After all, the No. 5 Electronic Switching System was just a big computer, wasn't it? The Unix operating system was invented at Bell Labs. Piece of cake, right?

Wrong. AT&T had been a regulated monopoly for 100 years. The senior managers didn't have a clue as to what competition was about. And they pushed out any new senior manager brought in from the outside to show them. They simply intensified their internal power struggles to the point that any information from outside the company was treated as noise, unless it could be used as a tool in the incessant maneuvering. Reality, the profit motive, didn't matter anymore. The company had gone into a collective neurosis.

Eventually, AT&T failed, and was bought out by Southwestern Bell (one of the former Bell Operating Companies) which promptly changed its name to at&t. And Bell Labs died.

When I reflect on Congress' past months of debate, and the lame compromise that raised the debt ceiling, I see the same pattern. Incessant wrangling for position and power, manipulation, and trying to make the other guy look bad to the voters. Any information from reality is ignored, unless it can be used to hurt the other party. The rulers of our ship of state are in collective neurosis. They are fighting tooth and nail over the arrangement of the deck chairs, while the ship of state is sinking.

So you heard it here, folks. The downgrading of US debt by Standard & Poor's, however superficial, will probably be seen years from now as the definitive point at which US power, influence, and standard of living began to decline. Our leaders are incapable of doing what it takes to reverse it, and the voters won't force them.

28 July 2011

The Right Stuff

Ah! The new season of Project Runway has begun. If you've ever watched the show, you must have been amazed at the ingenious torment the show's producer/creator, Heidi Klum, invents for the contestants, and the way she is able to get these poor souls to expend such prodigious amounts of energy and creativity. I used to think Heidi should run GITMO. She'd get those bastards to talk! But no. Now I think she should run Congress. Together, she and Tim Gunn might be able to get those other bastards to, "Make it work!"

26 July 2011

Just Do It

If you are a US Senator, a member or the US House of Representatives, or the President or Vice President, I have two words for you: NO INCUMBENTS!

You clowns, and I mean all of you clowns, are creating an artificial crisis with real consequences by playing politics and blaming the other party or anyone but yourselves, instead of getting on with the business of governing. Raise the damn debt limit, because you have to let the Treasury pay out the money you've already spent. Then get on with tax reform, entitlement reform, and government reform as a separate issue.

And cut the crap with your damned stupid "big" ideas. You always enact them in some great thoughtless, sudden spasm, after a prolonged struggle, instead of sober and thoughtful consideration. You never try a series of small things with opportunities for course corrections if they don't seem to be working as you intended. Fix what needs to be fixed with incremental changes. Broaden and flatten the tax base, little by little. Set up a sliding scale for Medicare co-payments. Do the little things that have big leverage as to their effects.

And get over yourselves. I hold each and everyone of you responsible for the failure of all. If you fail to pass a bill to raise the debt limit, and if the President fails to sign it by August 2, I will work to unseat as many of you as possible regardless of party affiliation.

At this point, you're all more concerned with fighting each other to get yourselves re-elected than you are with the common good. I don't care whether you're a Democrat or a Republican.

15 July 2011

Love and Death

At wedding receptions, children play, while teens and young adults dance 'till dawn. The parents lay down at last the burden of child-raising, and contemplate playing with their grandchildren to be. The grandparents sit quietly, enjoying the joy of others, marking those who are missing.

Dance like there's no tomorrow, young ones. For while you dance, your elders grieve, and your tomorrows will take them from you and put you in their places.

14 July 2011

Hit and Run

I confess. I'm a Tour de France junkie. I know what it's like to ride hard for 100 hilly miles, and I enjoy watching those guys work so hard, while I relax in my recliner with my remote and my iPad. But I take vast exception to the French TV car driver who whacked two riders into a barbed wire fence the other day.

So, maybe I should restrain myself from hit and run blogging. Nah. The Republicans and the Democrats deserve it. They are both attempting to manipulate public opinion against each other instead of raising the debt limit. Raising the US debt limit will not give the legislators permission to spend more money. It only lets the government borrow more money to pay for what they have already committed to spend. Failing to raise the debt limit is like going on a credit card binge, and then refusing to pay up at the end of the month.

The Democrats are trying to do anything to get the Republicans to go back on their pledges not to raise taxes, hoping to split the Republicans into two or more parties. The Republicans are doing anything they can to avoid this. The idea of actually balancing the federal budget is lost in the struggle.

I have news for the Republicans. I think most Americans will support a flatter (but not flat), fairer, simpler tax code that incidentally raises revenues. Starving the beast (of big government) is not as important at this time as making sure that most Americans pay taxes. If we become a nation in which the majority of people pay little or no tax, then they can simply vote to raise taxes on the minority who do pay. We could become a nation of pickpockets, as it were.

And for the Democrats, it's time to end the binging. You can face it now by controlling spending, or precipitate a disastrous decline in Americans' standard of living, from which there won't be any recovery in your political lifetimes. As for raising revenues by taxing lower income people more - you have already voted to take money from them one way or another, and that fact can only be hidden for so long.

15 May 2011

Bin Laden in Heaven

Usama Bin Laden finds himself at the entrance to Heaven after being "double-tapped" in the middle of the night by a US Special Forces team. There to meet him is the Archangel Gibreel (Gabriel to Christians), who says, "Now, my son, you will taste of the destiny that I foretold."

With that, the Pearly Gates open, and out marches President George Washington, who punches Bin Laden in the stomach. Then President Thomas Jefferson punches UBL in the face. Then a kick to the groin from General Robert E. Lee. Then General "Light Horse Harry" Lee knocks UBL to the ground and kicks him in the kidney, while President James Madison kicks him in the chest. And there seems to be an endless line of figures coming to do more of the same.

"This is nothing like what you promised me!" shouts the anguished Bin Laden.

"You should have listened better to me," admonishes Gabriel. "I told you that if you persisted in your behavior, you would be met at the gates of Heaven by 72 VIRGINIANS."

07 May 2011

When will the War be Over?

While cleaning up my files, I came across this reply to a friend, who wanted to know when I thought the war in Iraq would end.

To me, Iraq is not a war - it is a battlefront in a larger war: The War of Facism-with-an-Islamic-face against Liberal Democracy. It is indeed a world war, which started with the Iranian Revolution and finally caught our attention with the 9/11 attacks.

It is true that the US chose to initiate Iraq as a battlefront, and also true that it was a bad idea to do so (as we can all see in retrospect). But even if we pull out of Iraq, the war will go on against us.

We keep thinking of war in terms of our own culture - jump into a war, fight it full time, get it over with and then get back to normal. Our way of war decends from ancient Greece, in which the soldier-citizens were farmers, and had to get the war over with in time to get back to their fields to avoid starvation.

The horse-riding nomads of the Eurasian steppe thought of war differently. For them, war was something you did part time. You could spend part of any day fighting, and the rest of the time you grazed your horses. There was no "getting it over with," because if there was no more war, then there was no more honor to be won. The Islamofacist style of war descends from that of the horse peoples of the steppe - you work at your job, spend time with your family, and help place a bomb when you have a spare evening.

In other words, there is no Greco-Western ending to this conflict. This is just a phase of Globalization. The Islamofacists fear that their women will become liberated by the influx of Western values, and are fighting it with everything they've got. Ergo, the war will be over when women everywhere actually become liberated. There will be no surrender, just nothing to fight over anymore.

Women are the key to victory. Weapons can at best perform holding actions.


I think we all need to take a more global and more long term perspective, before precipitously acting - either to fight more or to fight less. We need to choose our battles more carefully, and fight them less intensively - with more emphasis on social relations than on firefights.

On the day of the 9/11 attacks, one of my neighbors and I put up the Stars and Stripes in front of our houses, and agreed to keep displaying it until the war was over. I guess I'll be keeping it there for a while yet.

01 May 2011

Bin Laden is Dead

President of the United States Barack Obama has announced that Usama Bin Laden has been killed in a US raid on a compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan. I'm glad, but I'm not overjoyed. If I could have had my way, Bin Laden would have spent decades imprisoned in the basement of a building in Langley, VA, with only the disembodied voice of his interrogator for company. He could then die the natural death that is often slower and harder to bear than a bullet's impact.

Even now, the Obama Administration is seeing to it that Bin Laden's body is handled according to Islamic custom. I think this is far above what he deserves. To be a Muslim means to submit one's will to God's will, to become a willing servant of God. Bin Laden made himself a servant to his own Jihad, and conjured up an idol in his own diseased imagination which he also made to serve his Jihad. He then blasphemed by calling his idol God (Allah in Arabic). As such, Bin Laden had actually left the true path of Islam and become a Jihadi-Takfiri (Warfare-Apostate). He compounded his idolatry, blasphemy, and apostasy by getting others to do acts of outrageous violence, and by seducing others to follow him into his spiritual abyss.

No, I wouldn't give Usama Bin Laden an Islamic burial. I'd feed his body to wild pigs, collect the dung, and flush it into the sewers at the Pentagon, and around site of the former World Trade Center. Then, any converts to his cause who want to worship him could stick their heads in a toilet at either of these locations.

Oh well. There are bigger things going on. Japan has been going through a terrible time following the earthquake/tsunami of March 11 and aftershocks. The Arab peoples are attempting to throw off the chains of their oppressive governments, and are having a pretty grim time of it in some places. Let us pray for them all.

And then, let us thank God that Usama Bin Laden is now to appear in the history books, rather than the news.

20 April 2011

Cyber Alert for Apple Products!

Take a look at this post on O'Reilly's Radar blog. It turns out that Apple's iPhone (with IOS 4.0) and iPad 3G keep an internal file that tracks everywhere you've been while the device is turned on. Call me old-fashioned, but that's a big privacy concern for me.

04 April 2011

Afghanistan you can thank me now

The Rev. Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach (officially cursed by the Blind Chihuahua as of this post) burned a copy of the Quran, and Muslims in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan, rioted and killed some United Nations workers. This may have something to do with Afghan tribal justice as observed in the more remote regions, which works like this. If someone perpetrates a crime against you, and you cannot catch the perpetrator to take vengeance on him, you are allowed to take vengeance on anyone from the perpetrator's tribe (which in this case means Christians). It's a lightweight system of justice, and provides incentive for each tribe to exercise discipline over its members. It falls afoul of justice systems elsewhere in the world, where it is required that no one other than the actual perpetrator pay for his misdeed, and where a third party - the State - exacts justice in criminal matters.

But as long as Afghans pursue an idea of justice that is dysfunctional and conflict-producing when applied to rest of the world, we might wonder if they have a sense of balance, of basic fairness.

If they become angry at Rev. Jones for dishonoring the Quran, will they celebrate a Christian who honors the Quran? Who has read three different translations of it, and who has downloaded three more to his iPad as part of the myQuran app? I am talking about me, of course. Will they celebrate my honoring Islam? Even though I feel called by God to worship him as a Christian, I nevertheless respect Islam, and will do whatever I can to help Muslims be Muslims. Will they celebrate that? Will they celebrate that I believe a modern person cannot claim to be well-read without having read the Quran?

So, you folks in Mazar-I-Sharif, how about a Thank Scooper Day?

I won't hold my breath waiting for it.

But I will mention that myQuran is free from the Apple AppStore and it seems excellent. You can even download audio of various reciters reading the Quran to you in the original Arabic. Actually the reading is very musical. Did you know the Quran can sing?

19 March 2011

Victims, Rescuers, Persecutors

Victims, rescuers, persecutors, lend me your ears. I have come to bury your pre-conceived identities, not to praise them. I now meditate openly upon GreenLanguage.com's descriptions of your mentalities.

I take you back to Friday, March 11, 2011. Half a world away, an earthquake and its tsunami devastate northern Japan. But this is the Israeli settlement of Itamar. Let us enter the Palestinian mindset: The Jews have been at it again. They have been taking land and water from Palestinians, making Palestinian lives less and less tenable, so that they will be forced to move further away, so that the Jews can take more land, more water. It is an Israeli government policy, forced on the government by the demands of the settlers themselves, who are trying to encroach on all the land they imagine must have once belonged to the short-lived Biblical kingdom of Israel some 2700 years ago. Thus every Jewish settler is a persecutor of Palestinians.

According to the Palestinian narrative of history, avenging heroes are needed to rescue the Palestinians from these Jews. Any attack that can be made, any blow that can be struck, must be struck. An avenger or avengers cut or climbed the fence surrounding the settlement, and entered the a persecutor's home. It was unoccupied. So they entered another and used their knives to butcher whoever they found there - Rabbi Ehud Fogel, his wife Ruth, their 11 and 4 year old sons Yoav and Elad, and their three month old daughter Hadas. Then they fled.

The Imad Mughnieh Squad of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades was quick to claim responsibility for the murders, but later issued a denial (Al-Hayat, March 13; Qudsnet website, March 12, 2011). The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are the "street muscle" behind al-Fatah, the ruling party of the West Bank.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, made it clear that they had nothing to do with the murders, which they found to be heroic. They either distributed or permitted the distribution of sweets on the streets of Rafah to celebrate the attack and to show support for it. More details here.

Now I ask you to look at the right-most face in the picture below. Does this look like a persecutor?

Clearly, there is something missing from the Palestinian narrative of self-justification.

For their part the Israeli Right maintains that the Palestinian opinion-leaders want all the land of Israel, not just the settlements in the West Bank, which they think Israel needs as a "buffer zone." They point to the rocket attacks on Israel proper when Israeli troops were withdrawn from Lebanon, and from Gaza as evidence. They consider these withdrawals to have been appeasement. They point to the propaganda used in textbooks for Palestinian schools, which calls for the destruction of Israel itself. In the narrative of the Israeli Right, the Palestinians are the persecutors, the Israeli people are the victims, and the Israeli Defense Force are the avengers/rescuers/protectors. But whenever they move in to avenge/rescue, somebody gets hurt. And some fraction of the time that somebody is an innocent bystander, or a child. Moreover, their response to the murders is to increase the aversive stimulus to the Palestinians - to build more houses in the settlements. Clearly, there is something missing from the right-wing Israeli narrative of self-justification.

The Israeli Left, has its own narrative, in which the Israeli Right is the persecutor, and both the Israeli Left and the Palestinians are the victims. They hope to be spared the vengeance of the Palestinian terrorists, even though the violence of the terrorists is indiscriminate. They try to minimize any story that the Right might use to its own advantage. (Example here.) They ignore or minimize evidence that the Palestinian leadership does indeed seek the destruction of Israel, they refuse to consider Palestinian attacks such as this one to be terrorism or even hate crimes, because they are the tactic of the underdog. And the underdog deserves the sympathy of any morally developed individual regardless of the tactics the underdog uses. In their narrative, the Palestinians turn to terror and murder is "only natural." As if the Palestinians were morally or mentally inferior to the Israeli Left. Clearly there is something missing from the left-wing Israeli narrative of self-justification.

That same thing is missing from everybody's narrative of self-justification. It is simply this: When you are a Rescuer (Avenger/Protector) you are also a Persecutor, when you are a Victim you either want to be a Rescuer or to be Rescued, which means you want to be a Persecutor or have the benefit of a potential Persecutor on your side, and when you are a Persecutor, you are setting yourself up to become some other Rescuer's Victim. The Rescuer-Victim_Persecutor trap is so seductive that some Rescuers even rescue their victims only enough to maintain the victims in permanent need of their rescue - they way various programs to help the poor, or to solve urban blight are run all over the world.

Is there a way out of the Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor trap? Indeed there is. Simply by sticking to the facts at present, by being here now, and talking what is verifiably here and now, we can change the future. See GreenLanguage.com.

Or, as Jesus of Nazareth put it, "Ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free."

16 March 2011

Why American politics is such a Battle

It's simple. Politicians, more than the rest of us, use conflict-producing constructions in their speech. For details see The Grammar of Peace.

I would like to all political office holders, candidates, commentators, and journalists learn to use Green Language to express themselves.

Green Language consists of observations, thoughts, feelings, and specific-action wants. It is a way of starting from and sticking to the facts. It is also a way to be here now, instead of living in the "Victim-Persecutor-Rescuer" mode of viewing reality that is the stock-in-trade of politics.

Take a look at these sites. If you can speak more precisely, you can think more precisely, which can help you get to the truth.

Then we can talk more constructively about what to do regarding Libya, Japan, the economy, the budget, etc.

07 March 2011

Going Downhill

VCA 2010 RACE RUN from changoman on Vimeo.

Ok, the guy has bike handling skills. The guy is probably not suicidal. But are he, his fellow competitors, and the spectators adrenaline junkies or what? This is from the helmet cam of a rider in the Valparaiso Cerro Abajo Race, an urban downhill competition in Chile. Macho, no?

25 February 2011

Influence and the Birth of Freedom

The pace of change in the Middle East seems to be like fire burning dry grassland. First Tunisia, then Egypt, and now Libya. Muammar al-Gadafi and sons have pledged to fight to their last breath.

When I heard of their pledge, my first thought was, "May Allah grant them their wish, speedily and soon."

In the case of Egypt, the revolution looks like it might result in real democratic reform. Partly this is because of ties between the US and Egyptian military establishments, which ties exist because of US monetary aid to and training of that military. The hope is that the US Military's comfort with civilian control will influence the Egyptian Military's attitude toward the same.

Might I point out that this influence, this access, did not come for free. We bought it with our foreign aid dollars. We also buy influence in Israel with foreign aid dollars - which gives us two things: some influence toward moderating Israeli policy toward Palestinian Arabs, and access to some very useful Israeli military technology. I mention these things because some US politicians (Republicans mostly) are beating their drums to cut off such foreign aid expenditures.

You would think that our politicians, who generally peddle influence, would understand foreign aid, which generally buys it. Or is it just that foreign aid doesn't buy influence from them?

Public Employee Unions

Public Employee Unions (henceforth PEUs) are many things. First and foremost, they are the protectors of their employees' interests, including pay, job security, working conditions, health insurance, and pensions. Without their protection many public employees would simply be exploited. One of my own relatives would probably have been fired for teaching while being non-Hispanic.

On the other hand, most PEUs are "closed shop" operations. When you sign up for certain public sector jobs, you are automatically enrolled in the union, and your union dues are automatically deducted from your paycheck. If you are a public employee, the money for your pay, benefits, and union dues is taken from your fellow citizens and the companies they work for in the form of taxes. And your PEU uses a substantial portion of your dues to make political contributions almost exclusively to the Democratic Party.

In other words, PEUs are also transformers of public monies into Democratic Party campaign funds, both directly, and indirectly in the form of personal contributions made by PEU bosses. That gives PEUs a lot of power, because their power to buy politicians is combined with their power to engage in collective bargaining and strikes. Historically, that power has been abused to achieve compensation and benefits packages that are unsustainable.

The Republican solution is to limit the collective bargaining power of PEUs. But collective bargaining is the one thing that unions of any kind were established to do.

I think I have a better idea. Let PEUs engage in collective bargaining or politics (contribute to campaigns, endorse candidates, buy political ads) but not both. And let the union members choose which one - put it to a vote.

Personally, I would favor continuing collective bargaining. You can trust your own power more than you can trust politicians.

23 February 2011

The Man who Bought the Truth

Tante T. relates this Ukrainian folk tale...

Long ago, a peasant went to market. He had forgotten what his wife had sent him to buy, so he began browsing the various stalls hoping he would remember it. Suddenly he came upon a very old man trying to sell something very large for very little money.

"Truth!" the old man said. "This is the Truth, and I sell it cheap. Make me an offer, someone!"

The peasant was impressed. Surely this huge Truth must be good for something. So he bought it for the few coins he had with him, loaded it onto his cart, and with great effort took it home to his wife.

"What for you bought this great Truth?" she scolded. "It's too big to fit in our house. It's too big for our barn. We can't leave it outside, because it will attract too much attention and annoy the neighbors. We can't use it for anything. We can't eat it. Please take it back to the market and sell it back to the old man!"

The peasant heaved it onto his cart, and returned to the market, but the old man was gone. Nobody seemed even to have seen him. The peasant had no choice but to sell the Truth to whoever would buy it. But no one did. It was too much, too big, they all said.

So, he cut the Truth in half. Still no buyers. Then in quarters. Then in eighths. Finally he cut the truth into such tiny pieces that people found them convenient, and he sold them all, each one for only a little bit of money, but when he was done he had all the coins he could carry.

And that is why to this very day, everyone has only a little sliver of the truth, and no one has all of it.

And I must add that most people mix their little sliver with misinformation to make it palatable. When they give it away, they call it advice. When they sell it, they call it news. When they add falsehood to it and force it on other people, they call it advertising. And when they pay as little attention to it as possible, they call it politics.

De-pathologizing Religion

Psychologists generally regard organized religion as pathological, because their founding saint, Sigmund Freud, hated religion. He rejected it along with his shtetl* Jewish upbringing, in hope of being accepted into the urbane society of early 20th-century Vienna.

Now, however, the editors of Monitor on Psychology have permitted the writer Beth Azar to contribute the article, "A Reason to Believe," in their December 2010 issue. Religion is not so bad, she claims. It might be normal, even healthy for people. It enables them to bond together in larger social groups. It helps them be more calm and graceful under pressure.

But it can't possibly be true. Indeed Azar quotes one researcher expressing the hope that religion's functions can be taken over by secular communities built on some non-religious moral foundation, like Denmark's welfare state.

It seems to me that most psychologists feel compelled to display the left-leaning identity badges of their tribe, including spouting the anti-religious shibboleths of their own religion - psychology itself. Of course, psychologists see their discipline as science, not religion. But one very good psychologist once asked me if using more solar energy would cause the sun to run down faster. Truly, one does not need to be a scientist to be a psychologist. One needs only to believe in the modes of therapy one has mastered.

* What was a shtetl? A rural village apart, where only Jews lived. There used to be shtetls all over central and eastern Europe, with a vibrant Yiddish culture all their own. The shtetls, and their urban counterparts, the Jewish ghettos, were wiped out during the Holocaust. Those of their inhabitants who escaped extermination migrated to America, to what is now Israel, and other places. Those who would deny the Holocaust must answer this question: Where have all the shtetls gone and why?