Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Islamist Entanglement and Israel

Scott Powell's most recent Islamist Entanglement lecture, his ninth, focused on Israel. I have to admit that as far as the historical details Scott mentioned I didn't expect to be particularly surprised and I wasn't. This is no fault of Scott's but simply due to the fact that I happened to have a reasonably good knowledge of Israeli history, particularly early Zionist history before the founding of the state. I was, for example, already aware of the mixed role that Britain played in this history, first promising everyone everything, and second, and necessarily, reneging on the promises, particularly with regard to Jewish immigration to Palestine before and during World War II. Nevertheless, even I benefitted from this lecture since it now puts the Arab-Israeli conflict in the its proper context, namely, the several century old Islamist Entanglement of the West with the Islamic Middle East. As Scott points out at the beginning of the lecture, once one understands the full context and thus the basic reason for the conflict, the absurdity of the constant attempts at an isolated resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict via land-for-peace schemes becomes quite evident. With the next lecture, the tenth, Scott will conclude the Islamist Entanglement series and, I expect, tie everything together.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Update on what I'm reading... (part 2)

I have started reading four new books.

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now by James L. Kugel

No, I've not become religious again (God forbid!). But regardless of any religious sentiment I might have, I have for some time had a strong curiousity to establish in my mind exactly how I should regard all the various biblical stories that I learned as a child. Of course, I have long since stopped believing in miracles but if one thinks about it for a moment, there's a lot more to it than that. Are the non-miraculous events described true? Did the people exist? Many such questions come to mind. I was interested to know what the answers of modern biblical scholars were to such questions. Fortunately, Kugel's book is an excellent source in this regard, covering both the ancient and modern understanding of the Scripture. For example, Kugel names the four assumptions of the "ancient interpreters" (these are the original Rabbinic and Christian interpreters of the Bible from about the 3rd Century BCE and on, that the followers of Judaism and Christianity follow to this day.
  1. The Bible is a fundamentally cryptic text filled with hidden meanings.
  2. The Bible is book of timeless lessons to be applied to any age.
  3. The Bible contains no contradictions of mistakes. In order to resolve any seeming contradictions see point 1.
  4. The Bible is a divinely given text.
(see pages 14-16 of Kugel's book for the four assumptions)
On the other hand modern scholars essentially follow Baruch Spinoza's recommendations for how to study the Scriptures. Spinoza emphasizes that Scripture is to be understood by Scripture alone, that to understand Scripture we must understand the peculiarities of its own language, that it means what it says even when it disagrees with our own conceptions. In addition Spinoza started focusing on how the books were put together and the process of their transmission, and openly admitted that it contains contradictions. I'm now on page 376 and very much enjoying it.

100 Billion Suns by Rudolf Kippenhahn

I have recently decided that my knowledge of astronomy and cosmology is completely inadequate. I used to know a lot more particularly around grade school time. However, since then I have not kept up with the latest developments in the field and I find may of the popular mentions more confusing than helpful. My initial investigations on the web led to Evidence for the Big Bang essay, a fairly detailed review of the meaning of and arguments for the Big Bang theory. That's where I came across a recommendation for Kippenhahn's German language book Kosmologie für die Westentasche (trans. Cosmology for the Vest Pocket) by the same author but it was difficult to find, and I happen to come across the above English language book in a used bookstore. I'm around the first two chapters. It seems a little technical for a book aimed at laymen but I like it like that. I'm also reading the following:

Principles of Physical Cosmology by P. J. E. Peebles

As I mentioned, I'm interested in Cosmology. I was particularly interested in understanding if popular pronouncements about the Big Bang theory are a correct identification of the underlying science. For example, here's one from a recent editorial by Dinesh D'Souza (hat-tip Noodlefood):
Modern science has discovered that the universe, far from existing eternally, had a beginning. Not only matter but space and time itself came into existence around 15 billion years ago in the fiery burst that scientists term the Big Bang. The laws of physics themselves originated at that point, and those laws were inoperative “before” the founding moment.
So what do actual scientist say when describing what "science has discovered" about the universe? Here Peebles book, a textbook for advance undergraduate and graduate students, seems particularly helpful as already in chapter 1 he clearly contradicts D'Souza's claim and clarifies the limits of the science involved. After dicussing the "main elements of the standard world picture" he comments on page 6:
The familiar name for this picture, the "big bang" cosmological model, is unfortunate because it suggests we are identifying an event that triggered the expansion of the universe, and it may also suggest that the event was an explosion localized in space. Both are wrong. The universe we observe is inferred to be close to homogenous, with no evidence for a preferred center that might have been the site of an explosion. The standard cosmological picture deals with the universe as it is now and as we can trace its evolution back in time through an interlocking network of observation and theory...If it is found that still earlier epochs left evidence that can be analysed and used to test our ideas, then that may be incorporated in the standard model or some extension of it. If there were an instant, at a "big bang," when our universe started expanding, it is not in the cosmology as now accepted, because no one has thought of a way to adduce physical evidence that such an event really happened.
Parenthetically I'll add that some scientists are now actively trying to see if they can find evidence before the "big bang".
Unfortunately, too many people, both laymen and scientists, seem to talk and write as if science has now proven philosophy wrong and the Bible's account of creation has been confirmed. From what I've been reading, a closer examination of the science shows that the issue of the eternity of the universe remains a philosophical issue. Science can only trace back the evolution of the universe to a certain point in time -- it cannot establish that that point represents a "beginning" or a "creation event". I hope to read more in this book and gain a clearer understanding of the theories involved (particularly General Relativity).

(רבקה שרגר -- הבריחה אל החיים)Escape to Life by Rivka Shrager

This is the true story of a little girl who escapes the Nazis during World War II. My dad gave me this book as she happened to be born and lived in the same little Polish village that my dad had been born in and had lived during those terrible times. The author is that same little girl who by now is a grandmother. So far she has recounted the happy times before the war had started.


Anybody who has checked this blog lately has noticed two things. First, that there have been few posts lately, and second, that the look has changed. I'm not sure if I will be able to increase the frequency of my posts. Lately, other activities have taken priority over blog posts. At this point I hope to keep it going at least at the present rate. In addition, I have changed the look of the blog again. I was not entirely satisfied with the layout before and have been trying to find a more pleasing look. I may still tweak it a little but I think it now satisfies my aesthetic needs. Anyway, on to the real posts.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Update on what I'm reading... (part 1)

I last wrote about what I was reading in March of this year. Here's an update of how my reading is going presently. First a review of the books I mentioned in my last post.

Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics by George Reisman. I'm now over 550 pages into it and still enjoying it although at moment it is not exactly my highest priority.

The History of the Middle Ages by Victor Duruy. I don't think I have read it since I mentioned it last. At this point it has effectively dropped from my list.

Essays on Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead by Robert Mayhew (Ed.). Finished all I will read in this volume. Very enjoyable in many respects. As I mentioned Dr. Ghate's essay was the stand-out for me.

Standrechtlich Gekreuzigt, by Weddig Fricke. I have recently finished this excellent book. Fricke covers what scholars have managed to establish as far as the truth about Jesus, his background and his time is concerned. His focus is on disproving the ancient accusation that the Jews killed Christ. After first showing that there really is very little that can be trusted in the Gospels, he succeeds admirably in showing that Jesus was executed by the Romans and any responsibility for his death lies with Pontius Pilate, not with the Jews.

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
by Ayn Rand. Finished -- much more timely and relevant than one might imagine.

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff. Our study group is now completed chapter three which deals with concepts. It has been a pleasure to really "chew" the material thoroughly. I'm very much looking forward to covering the rest of the book.

A Couple of Entertaining Puzzle Games

Hat-tip Luboš Motl:
  1. Smartkit I/O Game
    -- No Instructions. You have to figure out what the goal is and how to reach it. Took me about half an hour.
  2. Chinese IQ River Test Comments and Instructions by Luboš Motl:
  3. The Japanese employers use this test to hire employees in the IT sector. You should get all the people to the other side of the river. Either learn Chinese (in which the game above is written) or click the blue disk for the game to start. Clicking a person moves him or her to or from the boat. Right-click the Flash and choose "rewind" to start from the scratch.

    • The boat only operates with 1 or 2 people aboard; press a stick with the red button(s) to move
    • The mother, the father, or cop are needed for the boat to move
    • The prisoner kills any member of the family if the cop is not there as well
    • The mother kills a son if the father is not around
    • The father kills a daughter if the mother is not around

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Saudi Arabia: The Arrogant Kingdom

Unlike some of the other countries that Scott Powell has lectured on in his Islamist Entanglement series, Saudi Arabia was never occupied by Western Powers. While it did face threats from the Ottoman empire, the West was content to let the Saudis rule in Arabia, as long as access to oil was provided. The Saudis had their own agenda. Born of an alliance between Wahabi Islamist elements and the leaders of the Saudi tribe based in the center of the Arabian peninsula (an area referred to as Nejd), the Saudis managed, after two unsuccessful attempts, to establish control over the remaining parts of the country. This success was subsequently guaranteed when, following the discovery of oil in Dhamman in 1938, then American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with the Saudi King Ibn Saud in 1945 and guaranteed the Kingdom's security. The effective result here was a kind of feudal arrangement between the United States and the Saudis, where the Saudis were supposed to play the role of feudal vassal to the US overlords. However, a problem here is that a few years years later the United States supported the creation of the State of Israel and recognized it upon its declaration of independence. As effective vassals one would expect the Saudis to join the US in supporting Israel. However, as Arabs and Muslims unwilling to accept a non-Arab, non-Muslim entity in the region, this was not possible to them. Inevitably this lead the Saudis to oppose the US whenever it supported Israel. and eventually in 1973 the Saudis joined the OPEC oil embargo after the US supplied Israel with the military means to defeat the Arab armies of Egypt and Syria during the Yom Kippur war.

Only two lectures remain in the Islamist Entanglement Series: One about Israel and one putting everything together entitled "The Middle East: Its Past and Its Prospects". It's still not too late to catch up!