Sunday, March 29, 2009

Do you have the time?

Time. Do you have time? How much time do you have? Can you have time, hold it in your hand, show it to your friends, admire its sparkle and glare and enduring attractiveness and its unwillingness to be locked down in a neat scientific box, its resistance to being defined and categorized and understood and forgotten about? Can you boast about how much of it you have to your drunken friends at that bar with the beautiful women where time passes all too quickly and extinguishes illusions much as a cold shower extinguishes desire?

Time. Enchanting but hazy, like the fleeting remnants of a charmed dream or the misty outline of the seductive siren painted by an expressionistic painter whose vivid palette was robbed by time itself, leaving nothing but a dull charcoal-gray behind. Do we have enough of it? Have we spent too much of it thinking, dreaming, working, studying, scheming, planning for the tyrannical and terrifying future that is now long behind us, passing us by with nary a nudge or a wink or a suggestive whisper about the imminent arrival of the promised possibilities clinging to its bosom? Have we killed time? Can it be bent, curved, spliced, chopped up into minuscule little quanta carried on the energizing beam of glowing light?

Time. Does it flow like a cold spring in the silent night, steady and unending, grinding down the rocks in its path to the smooth dust-like sediment upon which future events are etched? Does the arrow of time fly faster than the human imagination, competing with cupid’s arrow for the chance to wreak havoc upon the hearts of men? Does the passage of time multiply the possibilities in an endless stream of exponentially proliferating states, or does it expose the futility of idle reverie by a devastating collapse of the wave function like a collapsing bridge exposed to a violent sandstorm in a desert where sanity dictates a bridge should never be built? Will time promote the growth of a flower carefully watered and nursed and lovingly tended but which nobody ever thought to plant? Have I wasted my time, or has time wasted me?

Time. It passes in silence leaving chaos behind. And yet, the knowledge that more of it is to come inspires the greatest achievements known to existence. It provokes bright-eyed hope and eager anticipation for that phantasmal chimera known as the future, something that never arrives but always remains just out of grasp right there in the very near future. It turns wise men foolish and idiots into prophets. It is a never-ending carousel of cavorting horses and colored elephants and bad speakers blaring loud music, turning round and round and round without getting anywhere.

Unless. Unless. Unless the time of time is NOW. Glorious and effervescent and right in front of us in all its florid beauty, this now. Future and past and present are now. I shall seize the moment, for otherwise the “moment” is nothing but a cruel illusion called ......time.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cockfights and psychopathic chickens

The biologist David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral among some other popular books, has an interesting and somewhat controversial view on human evolution. He promotes the idea that evolution works on a group scale, and not merely on the scale of each individual organism. As social creatures, group survival may depend on traits that would work against individual survival had that individual been less inclined to seek out a social group to be part of. Dr. Wilson is an entertaining and persuasive speaker, and while his presentation is full of interesting little anecdotes and thought experiments whose outcomes are self-evident, he does manage to make you think about things from a different and sometimes unusual perspective.

Take this thought experiment: two people are stuck on a desert island with no resources, no shelter, no food, no protection from predators, and… no movie theaters or shuls even. One of those people is what we would consider the very embodiment of evil: selfish; cruel; malicious; lacking self-control; and an Aroini to boot. The other is the polar opposite: kind; considerate; caring; selfless; and a disciple of mother Theresa. You leave them for a couple of weeks and then come back to see the result of your sociological experiment. Who would you expect to have survived all the hardships, and who do you think served as a tasty bit of shark food? Right.

Now consider the same experiment, but split between two islands with no means of communication between them. On one island we have a community of evil bastards as above, and on the other we have a community of kind and considerate non-bastards. This time, you leave them there for a generation or two. Which community is more likely to survive and prosper, and which community is likely to quickly collapse with most members serving as food or firewood, with the few survivors remaining in a sorry pre-historic state to boot? Right again. What does this tell us about the forces that drive human evolution and the evolutionary forces continuously shaping the human view of morality?

Now take the psychopathic-chicken experiment. Chickens on an egg-laying farm live in groups -- nine chickens to a crate. In one version of the experiment, researchers selected the most productive chicken from each crate and put nine of those together in a new crate. They then did the same with the offspring of these super-producers, and again with the offspring of those. After six generations, they had a crate of...... 3 super-chickens -- the rest had been murdered by their crate-mates -- and those that were left were continuously fighting and at each other's throats, so much so that their egg-production dropped to a minimum. They had bred a failed chicken society.

How did that happen? Well, it turns out that successful individuals in a community depend on having better access to resources and on the cooperation of other members in the community. They're also good at getting an outsized share of the limited resources available. After a couple of generations, as competition grew fierce and the best producers by necessity grew even fiercer, they had bred a group of psychopathic chickens, worried only about their own needs and quickly killing off anyone in their way. As a result, the society collapsed.

The same experiment was done again, but with a different twist. Instead of selecting for the best individual producers, they selected for the crate which had the best production. After a few generations they had bred a community that was living in excellent harmony (at least as far as chickens are concerned) and producing on average 130% better then the other crates. The selection process chose for the community which was best at sharing the resources in a way that makes most use of it, and the results reflected that efficient organization and produced a successful chicken society.

And so, Wilson argues, instead of the idea of evolution being one that promotes selfishness, fascism and immorality as some detractors argue, it can be argued that the idea of evolution should promote harmony, charity, kindness and even...... religion, with religion being a tremendous force for group cohesion and hence group survival.

This is an interesting argument, but it rubs me the wrong way. I find it a very dangerous thing to argue that since kindness helps along evolution, kindness should therefore be promoted as a value. Evolution is not a moral value; it is simply a statement of fact. Evolution states that those who are good at surviving and reproducing actually survive and reproduce (somewhat self-evident, once you give it some thought); it does NOT say that those (and only those) good at surviving and reproducing SHOULD survive and reproduce. Evolution has nothing to say on how things should be and what behaviors we should value.

We quickly run into huge moral conundrums if we try looking at it in any other way. For example, we have ignored the fact that from an evolutionary perspective, while it is true that moral societies are more likely to survive and reproduce, evil individuals living in those moral societies are even LIKELIER to survive and reproduce. They're still evil assholes, however.

I took up this issue with Wilson, and while I don't think I was as clear as I could be (I had a glass or two of wine at that point) he did agree with me. What he's saying, in short, is that since we do value what we call morality in any case, we might as well use evolutionary thinking to promote that morality. For example, he says that in one of his lectures, when he told the chicken story, one of the faculty members in the university came up to him and said "I have names for these chickens!" When you promote only the best researchers and the individuals with the most voluminous publishing portfolios and put them on the same faculty, they will inevitably behave like the psychopathic chickens. He strongly advocates you always promote the best groups of researchers, people who have shown a propensity and ability to work together efficiently and who will produce good research as a group. And the same goes for all other kinds of community policies.

To this I can only add: Don't be a chicken!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Am I missing something?

"A coed retreat focused on pleasing women joins San Francisco’s sexual underground," says the Times. Not very surprising, is it? What the headline doesn't say, however, is that it joined the "sexual underground" in San Francisco AND...... Orthodox Brooklyn.

"At 7 a.m. each day, as the rest of America is eating Cheerios or trying to face gridlock without hyperventilating, about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation — “OMing,” for short.
"Ms. Cherwitz commutes to New York and offers private sensuality coaching at a satellite outpost operated by One Taste on Grand Street. Many of her clients, she said, are married Orthodox Jewish couples from Brooklyn."
As you can see, the answer to the title of this post appears to be "yes, yes you are."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

What Women Want

How do you define 'want'? Can we have enough introspection to know what we truly want? Does our desire for certain possessions and experiences and knowledge have purely neurobiological underpinnings that we are unaware of consciously, and when we do become aware of them we construct post-hoc explanations which sound logical but are really just-so stories we tell ourselves in order to cover up the fact that we are utterly clueless of what compels and motivates us?

Whenever I have this question -- 'What do you want?'-- put to me I readily admit that it is a very difficult one to answer. I can enumerate a long list of my desires, but I'm unsure if that actually answers the damned question. What does a simple list of what I wish for and dream about say about what I truly want? If I want to eat chocolate can I also 'want' to lose weight? If I want to jog every morning is it possible that I want to sleep in? If I want to have varied sexual experiences is it true that I don't want to hurt anyone? Can I want to finish an advanced degree and want more leisure time and want to write on my blog and not want to put in the necessary work and want to tell people "fuck off" and pity them and want to be kind, even while I know all these are clearly contradictory? Is wanting something the same thing as desiring that thing? Is desire the same as obsession?

The field of neuropsychology attempts to answer some of these questions and illuminate how we explain our brain to ourselves, sometimes borrowing heavily from other fields such as conventional psychology, philosophy, sociology and even animal behavior. Studies on stroke patients unable to recognize there is such a thing as a left side nevertheless show they are unconsciously aware of what's going on that side, but being unaware of the reasons they 'know' certain things they construct elaborate tales of why things are as they are and why they say the things they do. These are often illogical and nonsensical to those of us consciously aware of the other side, but it is impossible to persuade them of the fallaciousness of their theories. The HM case also made some fascinating contributions to the field, as did the technology that allows for single-cell neuron imaging in some restricted cases.

However, the inferences are often muddled and the conclusions contradictory. I think nobody is bold enough to claim we can answer these puzzles with any precision as of now. We don't yet know what want is or how it is created or if we are conscious of what we want -- or even if we want what we want. Which is why I think the title of a recent New York Times Magazine piece (What Do Women Want?) that inspired the title of this post (and from where I shamelessly stole the picture) is hackneyed and silly, even while I think the content is intriguing and illuminating of human psychology as a whole. And I would bet the lickerish illustrations accompanying the piece is a consequence of someone betting this is What Men Want. Additionally, the dichotomy of the title of the piece and the keyword used in the name of the web page (see link) also gives us something to ponder. But most interesting is what the article says about human desire and about what we want, and the dichotomy -- or is it? -- between the two.

I should note that this post is entirely a filler for a single word. Now imagine if I tried to write filler for a whole sentence? I'd have to fill a book with fascinating stories before being able to construct the sentence I wanted. Seriously though, I've always found words intriguing in general and I find that word play in particular captivates my attention. And the way words mean different things in different contexts and idioms sometimes don't even make sense is something that is fascinating to observe. (This, too, is being studied in certain branches of neuroscience.) For example, I always fight the urge to answer the question "how are you?" as if it really means what the words imply: with a detailed explanation of the biological molecules and organ systems that explain "how" I am. How else can I be? To me, how something is translates into a question about how it works. Another example: why are dirty pictures called that when in reality the people in them or often at their most clean, having just showered or bathed? And why...... oh, I can go on and on, but I ran out of time.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy holidays!

Happy Chanukah, everyone! What a wonderful time of the year.

For some. But that old fat S.O.B. refuses to put any gifts under my menorah. So you're welcome to send me Chanukah gifts; if you don't know my mailing address sending email will do. Have you ever sent an email as a present to yourself when your inbox was empty just so you had something to read? No? I guess it's just me, then. I'm a jolly old fellow.

My daughter asked yesterday if it's true that the fat man with the long white beard used to be Jewish at one point in time. But of course! Can't you see his long white beard? However, when he heard the rumors about him running the biggest elf sweatshop ever discovered and his odd proclivity for visiting prepubescent children in the dark of the night and leaving them gifts, he, like any good Jew should, converted to Christianity to avoid the inevitable wave of anti-Semitism. Unlike this Bernie Madoff fellow who didn't have the sense to do that before confessing to running the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of the world. What was he thinking? Doesn't he realize that now we'll have to find a nice crypto-Goy willing to take one for the team and start an even bigger Ponzi scheme? I'm sure some wall-street execs are lining up for the job as we speak.

The children's school started teaching some real history and biology and math, finally. Only in very general terms, but still more than I once imagined possible. The government is tightening the screws and something had to give. The teacher hit on a novel solution: she reads the history of agriculture as it appears in the text, but then warns the students to disregard anything that contradicts the Torah -- without pointing out exactly what those things are. I relish the times when I'm asked, Are we allowed to believe that? and I get the opportunity to hit home the message that you should NEVER listen to someone trying  to tell you what you should or should not believe. You believe whatever seems to you to be the truth. A concept you'd think is self-evident, but somehow isn't. Logic? people will wonder. What, you rely on LOGIC!?!? Are you crazy or something? Deranged? All the while, I thought logic is the most ranged thing to rely on. And I still do.

For some light holiday reading some fellow bloggers have written about shame, castration, cold-blooded murder and secretly lesbian mikvah women in the Hasidic community. Really.  I think the holiday eggnog should be better stirred, myself. But who knows? I'd be afraid to enter those search terms in Google, as some will no doubt do. A search string of "castration murder secretly lesbian women banana" should provide much holiday amusement. ('Banana' for the potassium; what did you think?)

Go easy on the latkes and doughnuts, and may the Chanukah candles provide much warmth and light for whatever lies ahead. And the same for the Christmas spirit or Chanukah bush, if you're so inclined. Happy holidays!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Let It Snow

Oh the driving outside is frightful

But the weather is so delightful

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Love Poem by Yehuda Amichai


There is joy that weeps for seven days and seven nights. There is
a wedding wherein the bride and groom
are so far one from the other
that the wedding canopy does not suffice to cover the both of them
together. And the voice of the Rabbi who weds
and the voice of "harei at" ["I take thee"]
is lost in the speaker's desert.

Harei at, rat, tat, rat-a-tat tat,
like a solitary machine gun
before the start of battle or after its end.

There is a wedding wherein your night
is my day. Your days are getting longer
while mine, shorter. And the Rabbi who wed us
despaired here and is delivering eulogies there.
That is a safer bet.

--Yehuda Amichai
Translated from the Hebrew by myself (with some help from Yehuda Amichai)



יש שמחה שבוכה שבעה ימים ושבעה לילות. יש

חתונה שבה חתן וכלה

כל כך רחוקים זה מזו,

שהחופה לא תספיק לכסות אותם

יחדיו. וקול הרב המקדש

וקול "הרי את"

יאבדו במדבר של המדבר.

את, את, ת, ת, ת ת,

כמו מכונת יריה בודדת

בפתיחת הקרב או אחר סיומו.

יש חתונה שבה אצלך לילה

ואצלי יום. אצלך מתארכים הימים

ואצלי מתקצרים. והרב שקדש אותנו

כאן התיאש ומספיד הספדים שם.

זה יותר בטוח.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Mind over Matter

The brain is a powerful little machine. Powerful and complex enough that even with all modern advances in medical science in general and neuroscience in particular it still isn't understood very well (the poor thing). We know it has executive function over practically all biological systems, and yet we continue to be surprised by the extent to which what we consider the conscious part of the brain, such as emotions, appear to influence the mechanics of illness and disease.

Doctors have long known that placebos can have a real and measurable influence on well-being. That is an astonishing factoid, if you think about it; it shows that a simple change in thinking patterns may have real influence on many kinds of complex biological processes. If it hadn't been so well known, we'd probably be quite startled to discover it. We'd demand a double-blind placebo controlled study to prove it, which I'm quite sure has never been done (especially not the "placebo controlled" part). And yet, we know it's true.

The latest news is an article published in Cancer about a research study showing, among other beneficial aspects, a lowered risk of breast cancer recurrence in women who received psychological counseling. The authors hypothesize that stress hormones may ultimately affect cancer growth. Even while we know that the brain plays a major role in the endocrine system and mood affects stress hormones, I think most would find this outcome very surprising. Pleasantly so, if you happen to be a psychologist or embrace any other kind of pseudo-scientific beliefs. The hidden powers of the brain continue to amaze.

However the problem with the brain, I find, is that it has, well, a mind of its own. How many times had I not wanted to eat that piece of chocolate but have been overruled by my brain, which appears to have an irrational fondness for chocolate, potato chips, and babies? (But no, I don't eat babies.) Too many. How many times have I wanted to do one thing but my brain insisted I do something else? It often insists on thinking about something completely irrelevant even while I'm trying hard to work on something else -- and does so VERY LOUDLY.

Another problem with the mind is that if something goes just very slightly wrong with it -- or even not necessarily wrong, but just slightly different -- you can be in for a world of hurt. And if something goes just slightly wronger still, you're basically fucked. Such is the power of the mind.

So does that mean mind has domain over matter? It depends. The mind clearly has influence over the matter it can physically control, such as your own body or, in turn, things your body can physically control. You can in fact learn to lower your heart rate or raise your temperature in some situations, just by using your mind. You can even punch someone in the chin and change their own mind! But unlike what dreamy gurus with long beards selling cheap metaphysics -- or other deluded and deceitful characters -- would have you believe, your mind cannot influence matter it has no connection to or physical laws it has no control over. It cannot influence the properties of steel or the laws of probability or the force of gravity. Well, except insofar as the gravity of any situation is contingent on the perception of your own mind; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. Mind over matter. Hey, I’ll drink to that.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Important PSA

Important public safety announcement, complete with illustration, from here (as far as I can tell, these people are serious!):

Yes officer, I was driving and there was a distraction on the side of the road...
Immodest dress can cause traffic accidents and other public hazards

But my scientific observations show otherwise: there are many more horrible traffic accidents when there's snow outside and people are at their most modest! Obviously, dressing too modest is what causes accidents. For the love of all that is good and proper, we need to convince everyone to wear tank tops and shorty shorts when walking outside, especially in the wintertime. Think about all the lives saved and heartache avoided!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sex, Fear, and Ignorance

By now you must have heard the stories and allegations swirling around in our community, stories of molestation and abuse and a task force that's going to deal with it and the shame of being associated with said taskforce -- not to mention the dent in future shiduch prospects for your grandchildren and perhaps great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren until the end of time as a result of being associated with said taskforce. And you must've wondered: Why? Why the pig-headed refusal to deal with serious issues? Why the solemn silence and studied ignorance of those who think themselves leaders, and why the venomous derision and frenetic denials by those who think themselves pious followers?

Buried at the end of the most recent story on the subject in The Jewish Week is a quote by the latest man of the moment, Dr. Benzion Twerski, which provides a big part of the answer to all the above questions -- a bigger part, perhaps, than even he meant it. Here is the quote: "I think people simply don’t know, there are rabbis who don’t know. There’s a lot of education that needs to go on." Indeed.

On a most fundamental level, there's a lot of education that needs to go on in the Hasidic community. Education in general, of course, but in keeping with the subject, sex-education in particular. The ignorance about sex and sexuality amongst young people (and older people, too) in the community is astonishing. And the fact that many of these people marry and have children before being cured of their ignorance -- some are never even cured at all -- is profoundly sad. This sad lack of knowledge contributes to a twisted and non-realistic view of sex and a perverse fear of dealing with anything related to the subject. It isn't that I think the Hasidic view on sex itself is perverse; although that is true, too. But the lack of education, ANY kind of education, on the subject matter leads to total confusion and contributes to the sad state of affairs as we see it.

Children learn at a young age, both explicitly and by implicit signals they pick up from the adults around them, that any discussion or mention or anything else to do with genitals or other sensitive areas of the human body is evil and obscene. Not for us, is the message. Do not touch or look or think or speak of it. Do not mention it or ask questions about it or wonder what it is for. This may work well up to a certain age, but once the hormones kick in, equal measures of guilt and curiosity take over -- ENORMOUS equal measures of guilt and curiosity. Combine the guilt, silence, complete and utter lack of knowledge, a healthy dollop of self-doubt and embarrassment -- and for those a bit more educated, no healthy outlet at all (you quickly learn that masturbation is the most horrible sin you can ever hope to commit) and you can see how a very warped view of things is developed, internalized, and becomes part of who you are. As any half-wit, or at least any educated half-wit, can see, this provides a veritable paradise for molesters and all kinds of other miscreants and shady characters who always know how to make full use of vulnerability and weakness.

Unfortunately, this confusion about sexuality often survives well into adulthood. There is an intensely memorable and hard-hitting scene in the new movie Leaving the Fold by Eric Scott, a movie about Haredi Jews leaving the Haredi lifestyle: "Izzy" looks long and hard straight into the camera with a tormented expression on his face, and after an uncomfortably long silence and a few long and awkward pauses in between manages to say (I'm paraphrasing from memory): 'Wedding night... is rape. People are raped. It's terrible. Forced to do something you've always considered terrible and shameful with a complete stranger. Not only the girl is raped... the man, too. They are both raped.'

And there are many who feel the same way. Many never come to terms with a healthy view of sexuality. Parents, in their desperation to keep their children holy and pure and forestall any kind of emotional pain and upheaval, don't know how to deal with all these stories or even worse, imagine they *do* know how to deal with it: by denial, rejection, and vociferous condemnation of anyone who tries to do something about it publicly. It all comes back to fear and ignorance and lack of education, and we are seeing the fruits of that policy.

Regrettable, the extremely conservative official view of sex in the Hasidic world (and in the general, the Jewish Orthodox world) isn't any help. Sex or anything remotely sexual under most circumstances is considered a supremely evil force -- evil enough to cause your soul long-lasting injury and irreparable damage. Evil enough to cause not only spiritual distress but physical suffering as well. It is to be eschewed and rejected and hidden solely in the bedrooms of heterosexual married couples when the wife is not a niddah. Not that I'm here to decry the sexual mores of Orthodoxy -- or you know what, maybe I am. Lighten up! Guess what: people... fuck. They fuck and have sex and make love; sometimes even doing all these at the same time! (But sometimes, not.) As long as you don't hurt anyone it isn't dirty or evil or immoral -- it is divinely spiritual. Or maybe it's just some good fun, like biting into a freshly baked fruit tart straight out of the oven, with hot filling running all over the place and sumptuous crumbs lingering in your mouth and providing that famed afterglow. Delicious.

Why should hot apple pie only be shared by two people of opposite sex who are married to each other, and only for approximately two weeks out of every month? What great harm is prevented by this arbitrary rule? (Provided you use protection for your hand so you don't get burned, of course. Remember, not harming anyone includes yourself.) It makes little sense to me. Then again, many other things make little sense to me. Like the fact that to have an intelligent discussion about, say, piloerection and whether as a fear-response in humans it's truly a vestigial behavioral expression of an otherwise useless protein coded for in the genome, or whether that claim can only truly be tested for vestigial morphological features and in this case represents a just-so story with little scientific basis -- or really to have an interesting discussion or argument about much anything else, I have to go far far away from where I am and from the people I know. And I have to hide that fact. And worry about the shiduch prospects of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren until the end of time. But more about that in a later post. Maybe.