Sunlit Water

September 30, 2006

I’m No Computer Scientist

Filed under: Language — by teofilo @ 1:42 am

But this is wrong, isn’t it?


September 29, 2006

You Know What’s Anticlimactic?

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 5:25 pm

Turning 22.

September 25, 2006

Speaking Of Judaism

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 10:05 pm

I don’t agree with everything in this Yglesias post, but it captures a lot of my feelings very eloquently.

September 23, 2006

Where My Music’s Playing

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 7:30 pm

I went to services again this morning.  It was more pleasant than last night; the sermon was typically anodyne and the other people didn’t irritate me as much.  There weren’t nearly as many people there as usual, because it’s Saturday.  Around here, when one of the High Holidays falls on a weekend most people go home.

I can see why they do it; they’re mostly the sort of people for whom Rosh Hashanah is a big deal, a time to spend with their families and in their home synagogues.  It’s a time for togetherness.

That’s not how I feel about it at all, though.  I have fond memories of the High Holidays in my synagogue at home, but it’s never been a huge deal in my life.  Truth be told, I don’t care for this time of year much.  Too stressful and introspective.  Going home, then, is something I’ve never even considered, and wouldn’t even if I lived close enough for it to be practical.

Indeed, I don’t like going home at all.  I only go for the long breaks: winter and summer.  Part of that is distance, but it’s also that I don’t like it very much at home.  I like my family, and it’s very nice to see them, but going home always makes me feel like I’m stuck back in high school, and I can’t stand that.  I’ve lost touch with most of my friends there, largely because I got fed up with how they were never around and stopped even trying to contact them.  As a result, I rarely do much when I’m home; I mostly just sit around the house.  It’s okay for a couple weeks, but any longer and I get restless.  So yeah, not fond of vacations.

A lot of people, even people who go to prestigious colleges like mine, go back home after they graduate.  It’s a place they’re familiar with, they have friends there, and they know where to look for jobs and housing, so it makes sense for them.  Not for me, though; I went to college to get away from home, and I’m sure as hell not going back when I finish.  I’d like to start off somewhere new and make my own life for myself.

I’m increasingly looking forward to that.  I know it’ll be hard, particularly socially, and that worries me a bit, but I think the payoff will be more than worth it.  I’m looking for a place that I’m really comfortable calling home.  I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.

September 22, 2006

Unhappy New Year

Filed under: Culture,Personal — by teofilo @ 8:55 pm

I went to Rosh Hashanah services this evening.  These days my practice of Judaism is essentially limited to High Holiday services and the Seder, and whenever I go to services I remember why.  It’s always kind of comforting to do something familiar, but I have very little in common with most of the Jewish people at my school, especially the ones who are active in Jewish groups.  The Jewish community here is very closely tied to the fraternities and sororities, so it’s largely those people at services and the like; I don’t have any overall problem with the Greek system, and I know some fratboys and sorority sisters who I like a lot, but I don’t feel very comfortable in that kind of environment.  It’s just not my thing.

On top of that, the Jewish people here are largely part of the whole preprofessional vibe of the place; they come from wealthy suburbs and are destined to go on to things like investment banking and law school, with their undergraduate years mostly devoted to getting drunk and complaining a lot.  Obviously not everyone here is like that, but a lot of people are and the Jewish community has a disproportionate number of them (as does the Greek system).

And on top of all that, there’s the sermons.  Some rabbis are great scholars and give interesting, thoughtful sermons; campus rabbis do not tend to be among them.  Ours hasn’t been so bad in previous years, when he mostly talked about how we should strive to be good people and stuff like that, but this time he was all over the gratuitous Iran-bashing and I was sitting there wondering if I should walk out.  I didn’t, but I still wasn’t too pleased.

It’s stuff like that that really makes me wonder if there’s any point in keeping up with even the marginal level of observance I’m at now.  It’s tough, because while I do like participating in the rituals, they’re communal by nature and I don’t much care for the other people around me.  It’s not the sort of thing I can just go off and do on my own.  I’ll keep it up–this is my last year and there isn’t much more to it–but I’m really not feeling very happy about it.

This is a tough time to be Jewish in this country; all the turmoil in the Middle East leads to circle-the-wagons responses in the Jewish community, and I just want no part of any of it.  But I do feel like I should keep it up, if only to demonstrate to myself and anyone else who’s paying attention that this is not all there is to Judaism.

September 21, 2006

Rising Sun

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 10:38 pm

The overwhelming majority of spam I get is Japanese. I think some address harvester (or whatever they’re called) in Japan must have happened upon this site a couple months ago or something, because it’s seriously pretty much all I get to the address linked in the sidebar. I delete all the messages without opening them, because I can’t read Japanese.

I do have some friends who can read (and speak) Japanese, at least to the extent that college-level foreign language classes impart such ability. Which, in this case, is apparently quite a bit; the Japanese classes here are famously intensive, and as far as I can tell they work quite well. My friends who take Japanese certainly seem to learn it pretty well, even though most of them have at this point dropped out of the program because it gets to be too much work along with all the other classes they have to take to fulfill requirements.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that a big part of the reason the Japanese program here is so intensive and effective is due to the efforts of one woman, the wife of one of my linguistics professors, a senior lecturer in the Asian Studies department and the main coordinator of the introductory course sequence. Whether or not the overall structure of the program was her doing, she clearly had a major impact on the way Japanese is taught here.

This summer, shortly before classes began, she passed away after a long struggle with cancer. There was a memorial service yesterday, which I attended along with what seemed to be almost all of the departments of Linguistics and Asian Studies. It was held in the Victorian masion that originally belonged to the first president of the university and bears his name, which is now used mostly by the Society for the Humanities for lectures and such. The place was packed; speeches were conducted in one room, in front of her family, colleagues and close friends, and broadcast via wireless in two other rooms. I was in one of those two rooms, along with most of the linguistics faculty and grad students. Some people had to stand because they ran out of chairs.

The ceremony was very nice. There were speeches by her colleagues, students, friends and relatives. The speeches were in a mixture of Japanese and English; some were in both, others were entirely in one or the other. At one point there was a video of her demonstrating to her students how to make sushi, something she apparently did at her house every year. The whole ceremony was very nice, and really showed what she was like to those of us, like me, who had never met her. It seemed like a fitting way to remember someone who made such a big impression on those who knew her. I’m glad I went.

September 18, 2006

That’s Me In The Corner

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 6:24 pm

I am a secular Jew.  What that means is not always clear to people, particularly if they are not Jewish themselves.  What I mean by it (and others who identify the same way may mean different things) is that I come from a Jewish cultural background, I participate in what I consider the most important Jewish rituals, and I generally think of myself as part of the worldwide Jewish community, but at the same time I don’t believe in God, I don’t follow all 613 commandments, and I don’t think of my Judaism as being the most important aspect of my identity.  I consider myself both secular and religious in different ways, and the two sides come out primarily in different contexts.

There are a lot of people like me within the Jewish community in the US, and we cause endless amounts of trouble for people who look at “religion” from a Christian-centric perspective that privileges belief and faith over ritual and community as essential attributes of a religion.  The comments to this Unfogged post give an example of the kind of mess this leads to.  Is what I practice really a religion?  I’d say it is, but that does indeed make it hard to rigorously define “religion” since faith plays essentially no role in my religious practice; ritual, particularly shared ritual, is all there is.

One way that people often try to fit this kind of thing into a paradigm where religion requires faith is to say that people like me only practice the rituals we do because other people around us do believe, and we want to fit in with them for various community-centered reasons. So, the argument goes, if there were no believers around, no one would practice the rituals.

I think this kind of argument shows a serious misunderstanding of how Judaism works.  For one thing, I wouldn’t even know which people at my synagogue believe in God and which don’t; it just doesn’t come up.  Jews, even religiously observant Jews, don’t tend to talk about this stuff nearly as much as Christians do.  But even setting that aside, I maintain that a hypothetical congregation composed exclusively of Jewish atheists would still conduct services.

The main reason for that is that Jewish rituals are what Jews do, so if we’re Jews, and we identify strongly enough with Judaism to belong to a synagogue in the first place, of course we’re going to perform Jewish rituals even if none of us believes in the literal truth of any of the words we’re saying.  It’s about community and tradition, not belief.

One important distinction to make here is between what we might call “Jewish atheists” and “atheist Jews.”  The first would mean atheists who happen to have Jewish heritage but don’t feel any particularly strong attachment to it, don’t go to services, and don’t live their lives any differently from their counterparts who have Christian heritage.  There are lots of these people, and they generally don’t belong to synagogues.  The second would mean Jews, that is, people who identify strongly with Judaism as an important part of their identity, who happen to not believe in God and may or may not attend services or belong to a synagogue.  There are also lots of these people, and I am one of them.  I don’t think there are many people like this in most Christian denominations; with faith-based religions, if you don’t have faith, you’re out.  Lapsed Catholics may be the closest analogues.

I don’t particularly care if what I do counts as “religion” or not; I’m increasingly inclined to the view that the word isn’t very useful anyway.  But I do think it’s important to point out that rigorous definitions of concepts like this need to take into account all the phenomena that are popularly grouped under those concepts, and if something doesn’t fit the definition, it might be the definition rather than the phenomenon that’s to blame.

September 13, 2006


Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 12:23 am

I drank two cans of Coke today.  Whenever I open up a can of Coke, I instantly remember that I hate Coke and I wonder why the hell I just opened a can of the stuff.  In this case it was because I bought a twelve-pack of it for the inaugural meeting of the linguistics club of which I am the president and I figured I might as well drink some since it was there.  Bad idea; when I went to dinner afterwards I didn’t feel hungy at all even though I was, and eating all the food I got was a little difficult.  Then tonight I went to get some pizza while I waited for my laundry to dry and the soda machine was out of order so they gave me a can of Coke instead of the cup of root beer I normally get and the same damn thing happened; I could barely finish the two slices I got.

I can’t believe how much of this stuff I used to drink in high school.  What was I thinking?

September 11, 2006

Think About It

Filed under: Politics — by teofilo @ 1:24 am

Today is September eleventh, a good time to reflect on all the tumult of the past five years and what it means.  Kevin Drum has a post containing a speech by Al Gore from early 2002 that is eerily prescient and not a little disheartening in its optimism.  What interests me more, though, are Kevin’s introductory remarks on foreign policy in general.  He writes:

On nearly all domestic issues, I feel pretty comfortable applying my liberal principles to the issues at hand and deciding for myself where I stand. However, I’m far less comfortable doing that on foreign policy issues, which are inherently murkier and less amenable to ideological solutions. Instead, when it comes to foreign affairs, I rely much more on the guidance of people I trust, people who have (I think) demonstrated an even temperament and good judgment when they’ve had to make difficult calls in the past.

I find this interesting because it’s essentially the mirror opposite of my own behavior; I tend to puzzle out foreign policy issues on my own and leave domestic policy to people I trust who seem to share my values and concerns.  Part of that is just my temperament, which seems to be quite different from Kevin’s.  Domestic policy is all about moving large sums of money around, which is something I just don’t find very interesting in and of itself, and not something I’ve ever had any particular aptitude in understanding the details of.  My eyes glaze over when the discussion turns to macroeconomics.  I therefore seek out pundits and politicians who seem to share my basic philosophical outlook about public policy and trust that their recommendations and proposals are more or less in line with the outcomes I want.  Foreign policy is something I’m personally more interested in, so I’m more inclined to do the heavy lifting of figuring out good policies on my own and have less need to rely on expert opinion.

There’s more to it than that, however.  One thing I noticed in reading the Gore speech in Kevin’s post is that I don’t actually find his analyses of the world situation particularly compelling, or at least not as much as Kevin does.  I like Gore and think he’s a smart guy, but a lot of what he says in that speech is just either very superficial or composed of the kinds of boilerplate pieties that work well for American audiences but aren’t necessarily useful in understanding the rest of the world.  This isn’t just a problem with Gore; the number of American politicians whose foreign policy proposals I find both realistic and laudable is extraordinarily small, and not just on one side of the aisle.  Americans don’t tend to pay much attention to the rest of the world unless they perceive it as a threat, so there’s little payoff for a politician in acquiring large stores of substantive knowledge about foreign policy, and as a result few bother.

This is a problem, since foreign policy is very important, and it has led to many of the most boneheaded moves of US administrations more concerned about their poll numbers at home than about the actual issues facing our country overseas. Our current Middle East policy is a prime example, and there are many others.

I’m not claiming that everyone should go out on their own and figure out what the best US policies toward every country in the worlds should be; there are in fact experts who are trustworthy on these issues, in academia and various think tanks.  But I would advise caution in simply trusting politicians to do the right thing because they’ve been through tough situations before.  As Kevin points out, foreign policy is a murky area that’s hard to understand, but that doesn’t mean critical thinking is useless in regard to it.  Indeed, it’s more important than ever.

September 8, 2006

School Days

Filed under: Culture,Personal — by teofilo @ 12:34 am

Welcome Bitch readers! I haven’t written much about education here, but it’s a subject I think about a lot and I have some strong opinions on it. Foremost among these is the idea that people should send their kids to their local public school unless there is a very compelling reason not to (hence my comment that prompted B’s post). The reasons I feel this way are closely tied to my personal background, and I’d like to go into a bit of detail on that.

I grew up in a fairly large city in the Southwest, and went to my neighborhood public schools for all 12 years. (Kindergarten was before we moved there.) My elementary school was largely (though not exclusively) white and middle-class, reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood it was in. It’s near a university, so there were lots of children of professors and people of similar status and educational background. The quality of the education was quite good, and it was a generally pleasant experience.

Middle school was less fun, although I suspect middle school is rarely fun. My middle school wasn’t particularly good academically as a whole, although it had some excellent teachers and a good reputation; lots of kids transferred in from all over the city. Demographically, it was split roughly 50-50 between Anglo and Hispanic. I didn’t enjoy middle school much, and I learned very little, but I doubt that had much to do with my particular school.

High school, on the other hand, was great. My school had originally been the only one in the city, so it was located centrally and its district was remarkably diverse. The student body was about 70% Hispanic, 20% Anglo, 5% black, with the rest mostly Native American and Vietnamese. The school had something of a bad reputation among the white middle-class parents in my neighborhood, who often sent their kids to private school or to other, more suburban high schools elsewhere in the city. That reputation was undeserved, though; I’m sure I got just as good an education there as I would have at any other public school in the city, and better than most of the private schools. The honors track was robust and quite challenging (although mainly white and middle-class, which is always a problem), and there were quite a few AP classes available. Although most of the graduates who attended college (not that many) ended up at the local public university, there were always a few who went on to Ivys or similarly elite institutions, including me.

Because my own experience has shown that the reputations urban public schools have can be wildly inaccurate, I’m deeply suspicious of people who move to the suburbs for the schools or send their kids to private school because they just don’t trust their local schools. Obviously there are exceptions; some schools truly are terrible, and sometimes kids have serious problems that necessitate extra attention or special programs not available at their neighborhood school. But I don’t see any reason for people to dismiss their local schools, the ones in the the neighborhoods they live in, without even giving them a chance.

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