Friday, June 27, 2008

Guns and Roses

The start of summer vacation and this week’s handgun news from the Supreme Court reminds me of an amazing story. But before the story, three questions for your table.

First question - Are rules good because they create an orderly society/home/life, or are they good because they are “true”?

What I mean is, almost every human society in history has had the rule, “don’t murder”. Is that because there is something absolutely true about the evil of murder? Is murder (however you define it) simply wrong? Or is it simply good for us to outlaw it?

That question is a no-brainer for most people. Most people believe there is something inherently evil about murder (again, depending on how you define it).

Question 2 – What about the speed limit? If the speed limit is 65 mph, is it wrong to drive 66? 76? 86? How wrong is it? Is 86 more wrong than 85?

Question 3 is more challenging: Is it inherently true that “all people are created equal” as the American religion dictates, or is that simply a convention that we agree on? Perhaps some people are created holier than thou?

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OK, now the story. This is from the New York Times, it’s a little long but worth the read:

February 8, 2008
In Bronx School, Culture Shock, Then Revival

Junior High School 22, in the South Bronx, had run through six principals in just over two years when Shimon Waronker was named the seventh.

On his first visit, in October 2004, he found a police officer arresting a student and calling for backup to handle the swelling crowd. Students roamed the hallways with abandon; in one class of 30, only 5 students had bothered to show up. “It was chaos,” Mr. Waronker recalled. “I was like, this can’t be real.”

Teachers, parents and students at the school, which is mostly Hispanic and black, were equally taken aback by the sight of their new leader: A member of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism with a beard, a black hat and a velvet yarmulke.

(click on the text to get the rest of the article)

Shabbat Shalom

Travel/speaking schedule

July 22-23 – Los Angeles
July 28 and Aug 4 - Baltimore

For details, send an email.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Milk and Honey

Dedicated to Gavriel ben Malka, that he should be healthy in a very lo-tech sort of way!

When’s the last time you heard some good news about the land of milk and honey?

The website points out the Israel is the world’s 100th largest country with less than 1/1000th of the world’s population. Yet...

Cell phones may be medical imaging tools — Israeli scientists say they've found a way to transmit medical images via cellular phones that might open such technology to most of Earth's peoples, providing sophisticated radiological diagnoses and treatment to people lacking access to such technology.

Israel develops solar power 100x cheaper — Scientists at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel have found a way to construct efficient photovoltaic cells costing at least a hundred times less than conventional silicon based devices, and with similar or better energy conversion efficiency. The reactive element in the researchers' patent pending device is genetically engineered proteins using photosynthesis for production of electrical energy.

Israeli male lifespan among highest in developed countries. Men in only five countries have longer lifespans than Israeli males, who live an average of 78 years: Iceland (79.2), Japan (78.6), Switzerland (78.6), Sweden (78.4), and Australia (78.1). The average lifespan is one measure for defining quality of life and differentiating between developed and undeveloped countries.

Israelis invent hydrogen car that uses just a tank of water. Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have devised a scheme that gets round the problem of dangerous and expensive hydrogen infrastructure, and makes possible 100% green cars that emit only water from their tailpipe. By reacting water with the element boron, their system produces hydrogen that can be burnt in an internal combustion engine or fed to a fuel cell to generate electricity. The only by-product is boron oxide, which can be removed from the car, turned back into boron, and used again. What's more, they plan to do this in a solar-powered plant that is completely emission-free.

Israeli breakthrough in Alzheimer's diagnosis. The Israeli branch of an American company has developed a computerized battery of tests that can detect early stages of Alzheimer's Disease. Until now, it has been hard to tell if patients are simply "forgetful," or might actually have mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a precursor of dementias such as Alzheimer's disease. The new system, called Mindstreams and developed in Modiin, is considered highly reliable, takes 20-30 minutes, compiles an instant report, and is user-friendly even for those will little or no computer experience.

Israeli company develops radar system that sees through walls — The company Camero's unique radar utilizes Ultra Wide Band (UWB), a technology that has only come of age in recent years, and with the use of special algorithms can process data picked up by the detector to give a reasonable image of anything behind that wall.

Seven Israeli contributions to humanity from the first months of 2008...

1. Scientists in Israel, found that the brackish water, drilled from underground desert aquifers, hundreds of feet deep, could be used to raise warm-water fish. The geothermal water, less than one-tenth as saline as sea water, free of pollutants, and a toasty 98 degrees on average, proves an ideal environment.

2. Israeli-developed eyeglasses promise mobile phone and iPod users a personalized, high-tech video display. Available to US consumers next year, Lumus-Optical's lightweight and fashionable video eyeglasses, feature a large transparent screen, floating in front of the viewer's face that projects their choice of movie, TV show, or video Game.\

3. When Stephen Hawking visited Israel recently, he shared his wisdom with scientists, students, and even the Prime Minister. But the world's most renown victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, also learned something, due to the Israeli Association for ALS' advanced work in both embryonic and adult stem cell research, as well as its proven track record with neurodegenerative diseases. The Israeli research community is well on its way, to finding a treatment for this fatal disease, which affects 30,000 Americans.

4. Israeli start-up Veterix has developed an innovative new electronic capsule that sits in the stomach of a cow, sheep, or goat, sending out real-time information on the health of the herd, to the farmer via Email or cell phone. The e-capsule, which also sends out alerts if animals are distressed, injured, or lost, is now being tested on a herd of cows, in the hopes that the device will lead to tastier and healthier meat and milk supplies.

5. Beating cardiac tissue has been created in a lab from human embryonic stem cells by researchers at the Rappaport Medical Faculty and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology's biomedical Engineering faculty. The work of Dr. Shulamit Levenberg and Prof. Lior Gepstein, has also led to the creation of tiny blood vessels within the tissue, making possible its implantation in a human heart.

6. Dogs have better night vision than humans and a vastly superior sense of smell and hearing. Israel's Bio-Sense Technologies, recently delved further, and electronically analyzed 350 different barks. Finding that dogs of all breeds and sizes, bark the same alarm when they sense a threat, the firm has designed the dog bark-reader, a sensor that can pick up a dog's alarm bark, and alert the human operators.

7. Israeli company BioControl Medical sold its first electrical stimulator to treat urinary incontinence to a US company for $50 Million. Now, it is working on CardioFit, which uses electrical nerve stimulation to treat congestive heart failure. With nearly five million Americans presently affected by heart failure, and more than 400,000 new cases diagnosed yearly, the CardioFit is already generating a great deal of excitement as the first device with the potential to halt this deadly disease.

For more, go here and watch the slide show.

Shabbat Shalom

Travel/speaking schedule:
June 23 – San Francisco – private meetings
June 24 – Los Angeles - “Jewish Secrets to a Spicy Marriage” (for married men)
June 25 – Los Angeles - “How to help our children get married without interfering (too much)” (for singles and parents)
July 28 and Aug 4 - Baltimore

For details, send an email!

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Bird in the Hand

Dedicated with a big mazal tov to newlyweds Barry and Talia - may you have a long, happy, healthy, prosperous, fruitful, amazing life together!

A story and a question.

I came home during last Sunday’s heat wave to find a tittering flock of children in our back yard.

“Abba, Abba, you’ve got to save the bird, you’ve got to save the bird!!”
“It fell out of the tree! It can’t fly!”
“B’die fall m tree! M fly!”

The kids urgently escorted me from the apple tree to the other end of the yard. The fledgling robin was old enough to hop and they had unintentionally chased it almost out of the yard altogether.

“How do you know it fell from the tree?”

“We watched it!”
“We saw it!”
“Wat it! Sah it!”

Evidently, one of the kids had shaken the tree and caused the little birdie to fall. It didn’t look injured, but it did look distressed. So I did the daddy thing, I got my gardening gloves, certain they smelled sufficiently like dirt and worms so as not to impart my own smell on the thing, and to much excitement of my audience, picked up the little guy and put him back in his nest, low in the apple tree.

There was just one problem.

He refused to stay in his nest.

“Are you sure he fell out of the tree? It looks like maybe he jumped!”

“We watched it! Someone shook the tree and it fell out!”
“We watched it fall out!”
“Fall ow!”

But after three or four attempts, it was clear that nothing short of tying it down was going to get this bird to stay in his nest.

The kids pointed to a pair of robins on a nearby phone line. They were sure that these were the worried parents.

“I think we’re going to have to let the parents take care of the birdie. You guys can watch it, but don’t get close to it, stay far away, OK?

The next day as the heat wave intensified, they went looking for the bird and found it still hopping around, looking very thirsty.

The day after that, they couldn’t find it anymore.

Only later did I find this caution from the Bird Rescue Center of Santa Rosa:

“A chirping baby robin on the ground is most likely telling its parents that it is hungry and it is letting them know where they can find it. Parents coach their fledglings to find suitable cover and feed them even after they are able to fly. Like all parents, adult birds can't be everywhere at once, so if you watch a grounded fledgling for a half an hour you should see one of its parents bringing it several snacks. Keep all pets, children and curious adults away from the area and let the parents carry on with the process of rearing their young.”

Here’s the question for your table: What do you think I think is the best part of this story?

I’ll tell you below. First, here are a few birdie video clips:

OK, here’s my answer....I thought the best part was how the kids told me “someone” shook the tree but didn’t say who. They didn’t want to speak lashon hara.

Shabbat Shalom

PS – last week some people noticed that something was wrong with the numbers. The web version of this Table Talk came out OK, but on the email the exponents disappeared, so that 1018 became 1018! The correct number, written out, should have been 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 for the Talmudic estimate of the number of stars.

Travel/speaking schedule:
June 17 – Chicago - “A New Twist on the Old Game of Love” (downtown business lunch)
June 17 – Deerfield - “The Art of Amazement Part 3”
June 18 - Los Angeles – “How Frustrations are the Key to Successful Dating” (for singles)
June 23 – San Francisco – private meetings
June 24 – Los Angeles - “Jewish Secrets to a Spicy Marriage” (for married men)
June 25 – Los Angeles - “How to help our children get married without interfering (too much)” (for parents)

For details, send an email.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Out of This World

Imagine a project at Harvard to convene the greatest scholars in every field over a period of several hundred years in order to create an encyclopedia of their collective knowledge. Who wouldn't want to see the final product?

This is the Talmud: a unique collection of wisdom that would surprise experts in any discipline, including law, ethics, psychology and economics. In the realm of cosmology, too, the Talmud makes assertions -- sometimes literal, sometimes metaphoric, and sometimes both.

To give one example, consider the Talmudic estimate of the number and distribution of stars in the universe.

In order to appreciate this passage, bear in mind two things. First, the vast bulk of Talmudic wisdom is claimed to be a transmitted tradition, from Moses to Joshua, to the prophets, to the Elders, to the Great Assembly, and then to a chain of scholars until the completion of the Talmud 1,500 years ago. Hence it is called the Oral Law.

Second, we need to appreciate the limitations of science 1,500 years ago: the telescope was invented in the 16th century, and the number of stars visible to the naked eye is approximately 9,000.

So what did these ancient rabbis say about the number of stars? In Tractate Brachot, page 32b, the Talmud records a tradition, in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, that there are roughly 1018 stars in the universe. This number is remarkably big and much closer to the current scientific consensus of 1022 than common sense would allow.

Now, although it is interesting for an ancient people to have such a large estimate, this single coincidence could perhaps be explained as an extremely lucky guess. Never mind that no other ancient people had an estimate anywhere near this order of magnitude, nor did they have a conventional way to write such a number. (I have queried dozens of astronomers and none could identify a single other ancient culture with remotely similar figures.)

However, the Talmud relates more than a raw number. The passage explains that the distribution of stars throughout the cosmos is neither even nor random. Rather, it states that they are clustered in groups of billions of stars (what we call galaxies), which themselves are clustered into groups (what astronomers call galactic clusters), which in turn are in mega-groups (what we call superclusters).

To describe the stars as clustered together, both locally and in clusters of clusters, was far beyond the imagination and the telescopes of scientists until Edwin Hubble's famous photographs of Andromeda in the 1920s. Galactic clusters and superclusters have been described only in the past decade or so. Moreover, the Talmud states categorically that the number of galaxies in a cluster is about 30. Remarkably, astronomers today set the number of galaxies in our own local cluster at about 30!

Further, the Talmud adds that the superclusters consist of about 30 clusters each, and that superclusters are themselves grouped into a bigger pattern of about 30 (megasuperclusters?) of which the universe has a total of about 360. Thus, the Talmud appears consistent with one major theory that the overall structure of the universe is shaped by the rules of fractal mathematics. I've shown this data to numerous astronomers around the world and the consensus are pure astonishment.

Could it be that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish made an extremely lucky guess? That might be plausible if he had used a number that had symbolic significance in Judaism, such as seven, 10, 18 or 40. What is the significance of the number 30? To my knowledge, there is no spiritual or religious reason for choosing that number. It therefore seems to be exactly what it claims to be: a conscientious oral transmission of a received tradition, rather than simply one person's guesstimate.

Moreover, Rabbi Shimon had a reputation for impeccable honesty; it is unthinkable that he would have invented these numbers or guessed without telling us so. The clear intent of the passage is to convey an oral tradition.

You are now in on the secret of Shavuot: There is something special about the Torah (and rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated!). The Torah is much, much more than a mere "cultural expression" of one tiny group of ancient people, so numerically small that we reminded Mark Twain of a "nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way."

This passage about the stars is a mere five Talmudic lines, itself about as significant as a puff of star dust. But it also hints to the treasures available to those who seek them. Shavuot (Sunday night) is not a bad time to begin. If not now, when?

(See this inspiring film.).

Shabbat Shalom.

Travel/speaking schedule:June 17 – Chicago - “A New Twist on the Old Game of Love” (downtown business lunch)
June 18 - Los Angeles – “How Frustrations are the Key to Successful Dating” (for singles)
June 23 - San Francisco - private meetings
June 24 – Los Angeles - “Jewish Secrets to a Spicy Marriage” (for married men)
June 25 – Los Angeles - “How to help our children get married without interfering (too much)” (for parents)

For details, send an email!