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    I’m an opinionated Grumpy Old Man. I enjoy the intellectual give and take that goes along with that, but have very little patience for stupid people (Note: there is a big difference between “stupid” and “educated”. Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met have a PhD…). Beside arguing, I like to build things in almost any media. Right now I’m mostly building in wood, Lego, and a bunch of different electronic media. I teach in a number of different venues - from preschool all the way through graduate school. Subjects range from talmud to neuroscience to engineering.

    For fun, I like to bash people with swords (OK, so they’re made of foam. It’s still fun). Although I spend a lot of my time in a wheelchair, I manage to keep pretty active (Like bashing people with swords). I am a libertarian, and have a hard time finding anything good to say about government or politicians. OK, politicians might make good sausage, but that's about as good as it gets.


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What every kid needs: a visit to poverty.

Most of the kids I know (including mine) are spoiled rotten. Their concepts of “normal life” are insane. I spend a lot of time in elementary and middle schools, and a good bit of time dealing with high school and university students, and none of them have any idea what ‘normal’ life really is.

This is because they have all lived in the first world their entire life. This is not a bad thing. Personally, I rather appreciate the fact that my kids have never had to live in the third world. Lack of the amenities we all take for granted is a real drag. The problem I have is that the kids have no idea what the word “need” means – not just in a language sense, but in a sense of true survival. Kids “need” cell phones, video games, pizza, the latest fashion, braces for their teeth, conditioner for their hair, zit cream for their faces, and a school trip to some far-away place (usually in late middle school or high school).

I think the kids should be a whole lot better served if they skipped the Spanish club trip to Mexico or Spain or wherever, the Band trip to Disney, and class trip to DC. Instead, pack the kids onto a plane, and send them to Malawi, Nicaragua, The Comoros, or Congo. Let them spend a month in an environment where they can see how the vast majority of people in the world live. I’m not saying that they should necessarily LIVE the life, but be close enough to it to start to understand that the real definition of “need” is “If I don’t have this, I will suffer great physical harm, and might even die”.

By exposing the kids to true poverty – real poverty – they are forced to take a look at their own lives. I certainly don’t expect the kids to completely change their lifestyles, but by simply opening their eyes to how good they have it, we can help them put things into perspective. By opening our kids eyes, we can set the stage to begin to make a difference. don’t get me wrong: poverty will ALWAYS be there. All I want is for kids to recognize that its there, and to have some understanding of what it really means.


Singing at the Western Wall: Etiquette

The Western Wall is a constant source of discussion among Jews. Usually, the discussion (at least in my social circles)  involved discussing some event that made the news – usually an action by the more traditional Jews to try and maintain what they view as appropriate decorum at the wall. I have to admit that, in general, most of the issues that they have are not particularly relevant to my practice of Judaism. In part, because I live halfway around the world from the Wall, but also in part because I think they are just as entitled to practice their version of Judaism as I am. Here’s where the etiquette bit comes in.

Recently, there was a news article about a group of American Female Reform Rabbis who went to the western wall to Daven (pray). Now it is important to recognize some of the differences between Orthodox and Reform:

  1. Orthodox Jews segregate men and women during their prayers. Reform Jews don’t.
  2. Orthodox Jews do not allow women to be rabbis. Reform do.
  3. Orthodox Jews do not have women wear Kippot or tallis. Reform do.
  4. Orthodox Jews (typically) pray quietly, without song or lots of noise. Reform Jews sing, play musical instruments, and are no particularly quiet.
  5. Orthodox Jews do the majority of the prayer service by themselves, at their own pace, only joining together for a few prayers. Reform Jews tend to pray together, and as a group.

These are only some of the differences, but you get the idea.

Anyway, this group of female reform rabbi’s show up at the wall, and make their way to the woman’s section. This in itself is a pretty significant point of etiquette. By accepting that the Orthodox Jews prefer to maintain separate male and female sections, and respecting that boundary, they are showing respect for the Orthodox Jews beliefs. Yay Reform. One Point for you. By the same token, the Orthodox Jews recognize that a group of female rabbis has showed to pray, and doesn’t make a stink about it even though they are wearing tallis and kippot (in the past, this has been an issue). Once again, showing respect for the others, and letting them do their thing. Yay Orthodox. One point for you.

Things progress like this for a while – both groups being respectful, both groups doing their own thing, and both groups (I assume) managing to have a meaningful prayer session at the Western Wall. Yay everyone. One more point each.

Of course, so far there hasn’t been anything except some ideallogical differences – nothing requiring interaction or contact between the two groups. You stay on your side of the line, I’ll stay on mine, and we’ll both be fine. If things had continued on in this way, there’d be much happiness, and many points, and everyone would win. Of course, if that had happened, I wouldn’t be blogging about it, now would I?. This particular prayer group included more women than normal, and was louder than normal (according to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) – the Reform Movement’s legal arm. As they got a bit loud, some men shouted over the curtain between the men’s and women’s sections, shouting that a women’s voice is lewd (according to Orthodox Jewish Law, loud singing or shouting by women is considered unchaste and promiscuous. The ladies continued to sing, and apparently some Orthodox Women approached them, and asked them to quiet down. Things escalated, and the police ended up getting called in. I haven’t been able to find out if the Rabbis were allowed to finish their service, agreed to quiet down, or were allowed to continue.

So what happened to all the respect and good feelings that began? My guess is that the cultural differences simply blew up, and a simple situation got out of control. In general, Americans (not just Reform Rabbis, but most Americans) don’t take criticism very well, and, when traveling, tend to have the attitude that "our way is the right way, no matter where ther are. (I hate to say it, but most Americans live up to the international stereotype of fat, noisy, and obnoxious.) In my experience, Reform Jews tend to have some sort of complex when they are dealing with more observant Jews, and seem to often feel that they have to somehow "prove" that hey really are Jews. Of course, the Orthodox tend to be rather blunt in stating their opinions – in this case a simple "could you please be a bit more quiet" might have avoided the whole situation.

In any case, someone got their shorts in a knot, and things escalated. So after this rather circuitous path, we get to the whole issue of etiquette. Were the Orthodox out of line in expecting the Reform to be quiet? Were the Reform Rabbis out of line by being too loud? Were the individuals out of line for not being more polite? I like this one because some of the answers are easy, but some aren’t. The Reform rabbis were definitely out of line for being loud. Regardless of their tradition in their temples, the Western Wall is an area that is (usaully successfully) shared by all Jews. There is a fairly well established convention of what is tolerated, reached after many years of arguing and compromise.  A convention that requires everyone involved to give a little, look the other way, and cut others some slack. In other words, a compromise. So, the first breach of etiquette was in the volume. Penalty. One point off from the Reforms.

Of course, the response from the Orthodox man is pretty rude – at least by our standards. But, once again, we have to view this based on the norms of the Western Wall. Having only been there a couple of times, I don’t have a solid basis for this, but my impression is that a Jerusalem Jew would accept his shouting as “normal”. The far end of normal, but normal. Of course, in the interest of peace and harmony, it would have been NICE if he’d been a bit more polite.  Of course, the fact that the Reform Rabbis ignored the (albeit rude) request doesn’t put them into a particularly favorable light.Not enough for a full penalty, but definitely a warning for both sides.

I could go on, but the basic problem is that the group of Reform Rabbis broke the conventions that have been worked out. When informed that they had crossed a line, they didn’t return, but continued. I can’t tell if this is a religious issue  or just another instance of the Ugly American, but it really doesn’t matter. Even though we may not all agree with the way things are done at the western wall, there IS a workable balance. Anyone who has been the Wall will recognize it – especially if they are open minded and willing to look at all of the points of view. Everyone gives a little, and by doing so, everyone manages to share. When a group enters and tips the scales, they should expect to be asked to honor the local traditions. Jewish law (all Jewish law, not just orthodox) requires it – local traditions trump personal preferences.

It has been interesting to read the flurry of discussions on this topic – almost all of them are the typical knee-jerk “those Orthodox guys are crazy! they don’t own the wall etc. etc. etc.”. The real issue isn’t who owns the wall, or even what is or is not acceptable at the wall. The issue is “Is it OK to flaunt local traditions and agreements simply because you prefer to do things differently”. In my opinion, the answer is a definite, strong, and emphatic  “NO”. The Reform Rabbis were 100% wrong. They failed to follow the local norms and traditions (which allow all Jews to share the wall), and when informed that they were had violated the local mores, refused to back down. In this case, the Orthodox were simply requesting that the visitors respect established rules and agreements. The Reform Rabbis don’t have an ethical or moral leg to stand on.

Adventures in airplane cuisine

Ah the joys of international cuisine – especially on airplanes.

On a recent trip from Tel Aviv to Manchester, NH, I had the ultimate airplane food experience.

You see, on a trip like this (Tel Aviv to London to Dulles (Wash DC) to Manchester), you can expect to spend an entire day in airplanes and airports. That means that you’re stuck eating airplane food and/or grossly overpriced fast food at the terminal. If you bother to try and bring anything resembling real food with you on an international flight, plan on having it taken away at the first security and/or customs checkpoint.

Having resigned myself to a day of Bad Food, I figured I;d make the best of it, and request kosher meals o the flights. For those of you not in the know, the kosher meals are almost always a lot better than the normal airplane fare. There are a couple of noted exceptions (British Airways is one), but they are rare.

So, come breakfast time (Tel Aviv to London – about 5.5 hours of airtime), I get breakfast. Things are looking up. While everyone else if facing some sort of quiche sandwich, I’ve got a hot cheese omelet, fresh bagel, cream cheese, fruit and orange juice. Nice. For a while.  They say payback is a bitch, and this time, I got paid back in spades. Apparently, there was something a bit dodgy in my breakfast, because a half hour after eating, I was feeling a bit queasy. This in itself is rather unusual. Having traveled extensively in the third world, and having done my time in both the army and college dining halls, it takes a lot to get my stomach going. Whatever was in breakfast did it. After a quick dash to the lavatory (try that sometime on an airplane), and a few minutes returning my breakfast, I felt like crap. Major crap. Apparently, I looked like crap too, because as I staggered back towards my seat (being incapable of anything resembling a dash, or even normal airplane stumble) one of the stewardesses asked me if I was OK.

I explained that I wasn’t feeling to well, and she helped me to my seat, then spent the next 3 hours trying to keep me supplied with barf backs, napkins and water,as well as periodic assistance to get back to the bathroom to attempt to clean myself up. She also had the grace to find other seats for the people sitting next to me, for which I am eternally grateful.

On arrival at Heathrow (London) airport, they took me directly to the infirmary, where they decided that I had definitely got a good case of some sort of food poisoning. Apparently, it was a blessing that my system decided to purge so quickly. According to the doc that was taking care of me, it was very likely that whatever it was that hit me didn’t get the chance to make into my lower GI, so my emissions didn’t expand to the nether regions. I hate to think of taking a long flight with a major case of the trots. In any case, they were very nice, and sent someone off to arrange for ensuring that my connections were still on time (I had a 4 hour layover at Heathrow), and did a very nice job of taking care of me. Meaning that they ran a bunch of tests, made sure I had quick access to a basin, and made soothing noises. For some reason, the Brits seem to be extremely good at soothing noises and compassion. Not sure how, but they are. They were cute too. I think next time I need to spend time in hospital, I’ll see what I can do about getting to the UK…

Anyway, they offered to keep me overnight to see if I would improve, but I didn’t really want to – I wanted to be home. Instead, they offered to dose me up so that I would pass out for the next leg of my trip (from London to DC – 7 1/2 hours of airtime), and hope that I’d feel better by then. They escorted me through the security checks (easiest check I’ve been through in years), helped me onto the plane, and tucked me in. They even managed to make sure I had 2 adjoining seats so I could lie down. I felt kinda bad about that, because I know there was a bunch of people on standby, but I wasn’t going to argue…

The flight crew were great on this leg too. Whenever I woke up to turn over (probably about once an hour – those seats just are not meant to hold a 6’2″ person), they would be right there with a cup of ice and ginger ale, and asking if there was anything I wanted. When I finally woke up more or less for real, there was still about an hour left in the flight. I was actually feeling more or less human. The flight crew came up with a can of kosher chicken broth (I can only imagine that someone onthe ground planned ahead, because I can’t imagine that is anormal airplane stock item), and some toast. I nibbled, it stayed down, and I felt increasingly more human.

I managed the connection through Dulles with only minor assistance, and by the time I got to Manchester, I was tired, but feeling more or less OK. I even ate the snack on the flight.

So, all told, not the most fun I’ve ever had on a long plane flight, but I have to hand it to the staff all along the way – I’ve never been treated better (at least not in an airport/airplane). No matter how cold, impersonal, and detached they may be for “normal” passengers, the entire set of people I dealt with – 3 sets of air crew, ground and medical crew at Heathrow and Ground Crew at Dulles – were wonderful.

The really surprising thing: the Bad Breakfast was on BMI – an airline that normally has very good food and service. The last 2 legs of my flight (London to DC to Manchester) were on United – an airline that I’ve had innumerable problems with, and who have always been my last choice. I can’t blame BMI (too much) – mistakes happen, and because the food was kosher, it was double sealed, so all they do is pop it into the microwave, and serve (still sealed). United, however, has completely redeemed itself. I can deal with the “normal” treatment (no matter how unpleasant it may be) knowing that when it really matters, they are amazing.

So, to any of you who may be airline or airport crew: my thanks. To those of you who fly, I hope you never end up in a situation like this, but if you do, I think you’re in for a pleasant surprise (if such a thing is possible in those circumstances)…

The Golan Heights

Ok, so after a rainy, cold (for Israel) shabbat, we decided to spend a rainy, cold Sunday cruising around the northern part of the country. We were staying at a kibbutz on the west side of lake Kinaret, so we decided to follow the shore around the south side, then wander north and see  what we found.

Of course, we found the Golan Heights. After an amazing set of switchbacks and steep uphill climbs, we found ourselves on a fairly typical mountain plateau. Fairly flat, a bit more lush than the surrounding country, and (surprise) sunny. we had driven up out of the rain.

The Golan is beautiful. Exactly what I expected as far as scenery is concerned. However, knowing the history of the region, there were a few things that sort of jumped out at me. The first was the observation that a few Apache helicopters could completely control the entire area. Armor, Israel’s (and Syria’s) traditional base tactical units wouldn’t stand a chance up here if there wasn’t significant air cover to keep the enemies air-born tank killers from engaging. The next thing that hit hard was the fact that as we drove, I kept seeing what were clearly infantry stations – the equivalent of trenches in the second world war. They were everywhere.

Now, I am hardly a military-type person. I did my gig in the army to pay for college (my experience in prostitution), was unlicky enough to land in a war, but lucky enough for it to have been a fairly small one that most people have already forgotten. Cruising through the Golan, and seeing all the clearly military leftovers brought a lot of it back. It wasn’t horrible, or mind-bending, or any of the Hollywood versions of what vets go through, but it was definitely disturbing. I found myself looking out the car window checking out cover, laying out fields of fire, and evaluating sites for defensibility.

The really odd bit was that as we drove back down out of the Golan it didn’t stop. All the way back home, I was surveying the landscape as a soldier. Once I got close to home, and had stopped at the grocery, it had cleared out, but it was pretty odd. I have to say, I can’t imagine living there – Israel is making a lot of noise about giving back to Syria (a mistake in my opinion), but regardless of what happens, I don’t think it will be particularly stable in the long run. To be fair, it HAS been very quiet for forty years (since Israel captured it in the Yom Kippur War). Of  course the strategic value of having high ground fro artillery is not particularly relevant in the world of rockets (not completely irrelevant, but not as important as it used to be). The big issue now is that returning the Golan would give Syria access to the waters of lake Kinaret, which is already being drained at an alarming rate.

One more political issue around here that really doesn’t have an answer….

Ancient History, modern impact

My Israeli adventure continues….

One of the amazing things here is that there is a lot of really old stuff. Really old. As in centuries. Yesterday I visited Caesaria, and ancient port city. Also the place where the Ben-Hur chariot race was supposed to have taken place.

The excavations there have exposed three separate sea walls, harbors, a city, and a whole slew of other interesting bits. Wandering through the portion of the ruins that are open shows a lot of cultural history. One of the more ornate tile floors was in a public latrine. Goes to show what was important I guess.

Anyway, one of the more amazing bits was that there is an old roman amphitheater there. You know the one – the half circle of stone seats for the peasants to sit on while the local circus performs. Of course, being a perfectly functional theatre, it is also the place where they hold rock concerts and other such events. It was pretty amazing to see the ancient theater with a row of plastic modern theater seats added at ground (stage) level to provide some additional seating. This reflects the ‘use what you have’ attitude that I’ve found here as well.

Of course, the port city also went through at least 4 iterations of invade/conquer/destroy/rebuild, but with something that old, I suppose it should be expected.

The modern reflection of the rise and fall of the different political groups in caesaria was reflected by the frequent passing of Apache attack helicopters. Turns out that their base is in the North, and of course Gaza is in the south. That means that they have to fly along the coast (where the port city is/was) for their missions. During the course of the day, there was a lot of activity – more than usual. At one point, a group of 4 choppers went out – something that I haven’t seen before.

When we got home, I got on-line and read the news, and discovered that there was yet another problem at the Gaza border -another round of smuggling tunnels getting bombed, mortar attacks from the terrorists, an attempted kidnapping of Israeli soldiers,  etc… I guess with almost 8,000 years of constant fighting, it’s a bit unreasonable to expect things to finally calm down, but I’m hopelessly optimistic about this.

I also understand why Israelis are major news junkies. With the situation being what it is, and the speed at which things can change, you almost HAVE to be tuned in. By the time I get home to check the news (I only do it once a day) so much has happened that its almost impossible to catch back up. Of course, a lot of the news is much more personal – what might be given passing mention back home would get headlines here – for at least a couple of hours. We might hear about a major offensive in Afghanistan that resulted in 20 or 30 deaths as a passing filler article. Here, news about an attack that resulted in no injuries (just property damage) is worth a headline for a few hours – enough for people to be kept aware of the level of activity.

There is a saying that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. Here, it seems like those that know about history are determined to repeat it.