The Ancient Improved By The Modern

For religious Jews, study of the Talmud can be a lifetime quest toward understanding the word of G-d. This quest made all the more challenging since it is written in Aramaic, not a commonly used language. Yet for centuries Jewish scholars have studied these text and the commentaries written by Rashi and others.

The October 9th edition of The Economist says it better:

“THE Talmud is the bedrock of traditional Judaism: a repository of law and lore, chaotically interwoven with biblical explanation and legend. Compiled in fifth-century Babylon (today’s Iraq), it has since enticed, intrigued and exhausted generations of Jews.

For Orthodox Jews, lifelong study of the Talmud is the supreme religious precept. But for many earnest students through the ages, it has been a frustrating grind. Written in Aramaic (often described as the language of Jesus), it does not easily surrender its textual meaning or inner reasoning. In the 11th century, a French rabbi named Shlomo Yitzhaki, often known by the acronym Rashi, wrote a ground-breaking commentary to make the original text more accessible. But even he is often terse and replete with abbreviations and unelaborated allusions, as are the thousands of commentaries and books of scholarly correspondence that accrued over the ages.”

Due to the work of over 50 scholars working separately but able to be linked electronically, their are new translations in English and modern Hebrew. By having an electronic version, there are search capabilities that never before existed.

Even with these modern techniques, one does not merely read the Talmud but tries to extract meaning. Even computer technology cannot help you there.

One of the coolest things is that “Many follow a universal page-a-day programme: all over the world, people are studying the same text on the same day. It takes them seven years to complete the whole opus.”

I am fascinated that the same world can contain Twitter, instant messaging and still have room for a seven year quest for knowledge.

Big Brother

This opening line gave me chills.

“It used to be easy to tell whether you were in a free country or a dictatorship.”

It is well past 1984 and yet the government can check up on us in ways Orwell never imagined. And you and I make it easy for them.

The line above is from the article titled “Learning to live with Big Brother“. This was the second in a series published in The Economist. It does not focus on the illegal or border-line illegal methods practiced by the current administration. Instead it describes the myriad of information available that we put out there. Everything we do electronically, every payment with a credit or debit card, every website we visit leaves a data trail.

Data mining is being conducted with increasingly sophisticated mathematical formulae that can sift through large data sets to uncover patterns and even predict certain behaviors. This may be helpful for uncovering terrorists but the information can also be used to keep tabs on us non-terrorists.

Even those of us with nothing to hide can be cursed with incorrectly entered data or be mistaken for someone with the same name. Senator Ted Kennedy was denied boarding a plane because his name came up on some list. I get asked if I am “the actor” all the time when I meet new people. (It never ceases to be “funny” no matter how many times I hear it. He is dead btw.)

I am not sure what to do. All we can really do is hope that each future administration uses the data for our good and not for their own evil ways. Or, we can become cave dwellers.

Everything Looks Like a Nail

twain.jpg“To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” 

(The Economist attributed this quote to Mark Twain though I am trying to independently confirm the source.)

I find this quote illuminating. It explains why two people can observe or experience the same things and understand them quite differently. As humans, we view and interpret data– situations, people etc.– based on our own history, knowledge and skills. Our tools. For some the tool is a hammer but there is a vast array of tools– just check out a Home Depot’s tool aisle.

This led my thoughts back to a paper I had read about interpreting history. When trying to explain major trends or events in history the cause will always be an economic one to an economist, a political one to a political scientist or a religious one to clergy. In most cases while any one interpretation may be supportable and logical, the reality is that there were many forces at work.

I see corollaries in the workplace where lawyers, accountants, marketers, communicators or human resources professionals will see problems and suggest solutions solely from their area of specialty. It is the person or team that can integrate multiple perspectives that will be most effective.

To make this idea more personal, think of families. Husbands, wives and children tend to have different tools. Being self aware enough to recognize this and wise enough to understand the others’ tools can be the difference between anger and bliss. 

I greatly admire those, like Twain, who can find a few words to convey so much.

“To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” 

Note to self. Work on being clever and succinct enough to have an illuminating quote that lives into the next century.

Of Birds and Bees


No this is not a sex primer. This is literally about birds and bees. Lets start with birds.

The condor, a majestic creature. One worth saving from extinction. True. But how do you feel about vultures. Yeechh. So why be concerned that the vulture population in India has fallen from 20 million to about 10,000? Should we care about vultures any more than pigeons? Yes actually.

I haven’t gotten pigeons figured out yet but vultures in India are actually an important part of the big circle of life. In a country where millions of Hindus do not eat beef but millions of cows exist, until they no longer do, what do you think happens to the cows when they die? Yep, the vultures eat them. Unfortunately for vultures diclofenic causes kidney failure. Diclofenic is an anti-inflamitory used to treat cows. How ironic.

Unfortunately for India the vultures also keep down the feral dog population in a country that has 80% or the world’s cases of rabies. Lastly they are needed to clear human carrion. Parsees, a sect of Zoroastrians, believe that the elements are sacred and the body corrupt. Therefore they lay corpses on towers called dokhmas for the vultures to eat thereby they profane neither earth nor fire.

There is a vulture safe alternative for diclofenic. However it will take more than a decade just to get the environment back to being vulture safe. Far more time to rebuild the populations. In the meantime there is a hard out-of-pocket cost to society to replace what vultures did for the pure pleasure of dining al fresco.

As for the bees, I reported months ago that bees were leaving the hive at colonies around the globe. In the U.S. beekeepers were losing 30% to 90% of their populations. Again, why care about bees? Don’t they just sting people? And who uses honey instead of Equal anyways these days?

Actually bees are critical to populating crops including fruits, vegetables and nuts. They add $15 billion to the economy each year. Scientists have been working for over a year on the reasons for why adult bees would walk away from a perfectly good queen bee in her prime. They have recently discovered bacteria, fungi and viruses in the hives. According to The Economist, bees infected with Israeli acute paralysis virus shiver, their bodies become frozen and they die. There is a second one, the Kashmiri virus, and they suspect that a new strain of this virus found in abandoned hives may also be driving away bees. To top off this bee hell, a parasite called the varroa mite has been found hanging out with the Israeli virus. This mite weakens the immune system of the bees making them more susceptible to the virus.

While these are new ideas of what may be causing colony collapse disorder, no one knows what to do while billions of dollars of crops go unpollinated.

 You may not care about either birds or bees. You should. These are just two small examples of man-made unintended consequences with potentially huge effect on the cost of living in this world. Multiply this by millions of other little things. Scary. Very scary.

Maybe I should have kept this to a primer on sex.

Time Machine


I have issues of The Economist stacking up. Unless I am on planes I rarely find time to give them the attention they deserve. I recently picked up one from March 31.

The Economist usually has some articles for which the topics are timeless but much of the writing focuses on current events in the world, including the U.S. Scanning these articles was like using Mr. Peabody’s WAYBAC Machine and traveling to the recent past. These events took place approximately 5 months ago. Amazing how little progress has been made on some key domestic issues.

Some examples:

“Democrats are wrestling with the president over Iraq and much else”

“Mr. Gonzales is a worthy target….had he an ounce of integrety, he would have resigned long ago…”

“The war in Iraq is being pursued with “an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam”

There is also mention of the controvesies over the domestic surveillence policy and GITMO.

Some progress has been made since March. France elected a president, Iran freed the Britsh sailors it captured and David Hicks no longer resides at GITMO.

I would say less progress has been made than more.

With several issues remaining to be read, the WAYBAC machine will be in use for quite some time.

It Tastes Like Chicken



I spend too much time reading The Economist.  No articles about JLo, Bradgelina or Lindsey. For fun this magazine publishes an article on how some anthropologist found the same collagen on both a T-Rex fossil and modern chickens proving a genetic link. Is this high brow gossip or what!

So one caveman came upon another chomping on a T-Rex steak. When the first asked how it was, the second replied….