Thursday, January 31, 2008

Once again, if you're interested in the Winograd report, you should read it yourself. But for those who can't or won't, here is the short version (the long version is 617 pages long):

The first crucial decision made by the panel is that not only would they offer no recommendations regarding individuals, they would not even offer conclusions regarding individuals. So zealous were they in this regard that they do not mention names in the entire report. A reader from Mars could read this report and not know the name of Israel's Prime Minister. They spent an entire chapter explaining why they took this route. In brief, they wished to take the high route, which is how they understood their mandate; they didn't want to waste time dealing with the legal implications; and, most interestingly, they didn't want future Prime Ministers to hesitate to make difficult decisions for fear of commissions' nasty reports (Ch.3, para. 12). They are careful to note, though, that they did reach conclusions regarding individuals in the intermediate report and that they stand by those conclusions.

This approach colors the whole report. However, there is a single code word that they use when they wish to say that somebody screwed up so bad that something ought to be done. That word is "keshel" (failure). They go to some length to distinguish "failure" from simple bad judgment (Ch. 17, para. 25).

And there are failures galore. Many of the failures were at the military level. However, other than a few especially frightening items in that regard that I'll mention below, I will focus here on the political failures.

The central political failure from which almost all the others follow is the government's inability to decide what kind of campaign it wished to run. They faced a choice between two plausible possibilities: a quick and decisive air attack followed by withdrawal or a full-scale war necessitating the use of ground forces. Unable to act decisively, they chose neither and found themselves in a protracted war without ready ground troops and with time working against Israel's interests. (Ch. 16, para. 25; Ch. 17, para. 22, 131). The failure to call up reserves early in the campaign was another failure attributable to indecision and lack of overall strategic thinking (Ch. 17, para. 24; Ch. 16, para. 51). The fact that there was no orderly discussion of any of these issues within the government and between the military and the government is a third failure (Ch. 17, para. 28). This indecision and strategic shallowness led to management of the war lacking in the necessary resolve (Ch. 16, para. 97). All these failures are the responsibility of the heads of the political echelons (Ch. 17, para. 32, 126, 133, 138, 139), which lacked the necessary experience (Ch. 16, para. 101).

A great deal of the report deals with the decision to use ground troops in bloody battles just prior to the implementation of UN Resolution 1701 that ended hostilities. The panel concludes that the decision to go ahead with the battles was belated (Ch. 16, para. 66) but not unreasonable under the circumstances (Ch. 17, para. 103). The main problem was the almost complete chaos in those battles involving a complete breakdown of military discipline in a number of battles (Ch. 16, para. 84).

Among the military failures that are especially alarming was the lack of confidence of some commanders in soldiers in their command and, more significantly, in their commanding officers (Ch. 17, para. 56) that led to insubordination (this is hinted at in the report but not spelled out; there's probably more detail in the secret report). Some commanders lacked the necessary commitment to victory and displayed an inclination to just try to get by (Ch. 17, para. 66).

Of particular interest is the list of "kontzeptziot" (ideological prejudices) that colored strategic thinking for the worse (Ch. 16, para. 99). These include: a habit for protracted "low-intensity" conflicts; the notion that conventional conceptions of battle and victory are passe; over-confidence in the ability to decide wars from the air; over-tolerance for suffering of the home front; assigning great weight to military casualties; an almost mystical fear of conquest and "quagmire".

One major failure was the complete lack of coordination between diplomatic efforts to end the war and military efforts to win the war, especially among those in the Foreign Ministry (Ch. 16, para. 62; Ch. 17, para. 73, 91). The Foreign Ministry also failed to coordinate "hasbara" efforts (Ch. 17, para. 94). In general, the panel felt it did not have time to fully investigate the Foreign Ministry's performance and recommends that this be undertaken (Ch. 17, para. 93).

Finally, the panel notes that it does not believe that the lessons of the war have already been internalized by the political or military echelons (Ch. 18, para. 33).

In short, don't let the press or government spokesmen spin you. This report is high-minded and consequently short on name-calling and finger-pointing. But this should not be mistaken for being any less damning. The gun is on the table for any of the "failures" with enough integrity and intelligence to know what to do with it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The official site of the Winograd commission is

The preliminary report was posted there immediately upon release and I assume the same will be true of the final report due Wednesday. Everybody should read the report for themselves and most definitely should not depend on the press to spin it for them.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The many recent discussions on why young people leave frumkeit are mainly interesting for what isn’t said. Defections are blamed on abuse, learning disabilities, and lack of positive reinforcement on the part of parents and teachers. In short, the problem is not that the system doesn’t cultivate belief but rather that it doesn’t cultivate self-esteem.

The soft-peddling of the centrality of belief to the process suggests a whiff of kefirah, as if the content or nature of belief is so malleable or secondary that it never poses an insurmountable challenge. In fact, this is also a very frum view. In another of those Volozhin stories, a talmid tells one of the roshei yeshiva that he is has lost his emunah and has decided to leave yiddishkeit. To which the RY responds, “Did you lose your emunah before or after you decided to leave yiddishkeit?”

I personally find the response revoltingly self-righteous in typically misanthropic Litvak fashion (the one thing Novardokers and Briskers have in common is contempt for human beings), but the underlying idea that actions determine belief, and not the other way around, seems pretty solid.

The real crisis sets in not when some particular religious myth suddenly sounds implausible but rather when one sees enough of the world to realize that one doesn’t necessarily occupy some privileged spot in the grand scheme of things. Lo and behold, other people have cultures that come with pretty much the same shelves and cubbies as ours, just stocked with different merchandise. Is there anything really privileged about my stuff other than the fact that it’s mine?

If this thought is too threatening, we can try to put it out of our minds and simply refuse to acknowledge any parallels between our own culture and that of others. But if that fails, we are not without defenses. We need only find objective grounds for maintaining belief in the uniqueness of our own culture. For Jews, this should not prove especially difficult. One could easily convince oneself that the mere fact of our survival, our intellectual achievements and our moral superiority are testament to some secret ingredient in the chulent.

Of course, every now and then some Nadvorner drug smuggler or some Spinker money launderer may force us to reconsider the bit about moral superiority. (You didn’t think the Hungarians would get off the hook that easily, did you?) Or an encounter with, say, an articulate Slovenian nationalist might suggest the possibility that our sense of uniqueness is itself not so unique. And, of course, there is always the question of exactly who the “we” is. Is it enough to identify with some amorphous Jewish People that includes mostly acculturated or assimilated ignoramuses or should we be finding specialness at some higher resolution, say, Bobov on 48th Street? Which spot along this spectrum offer a sustainable heritable identity?

These are difficult questions that usually go unanswered because at some point we are sufficiently invested in a particular identity that even if we acknowledge that our uniqueness is not unique, it is sufficient. And once we make that commitment, we seek to pass it on to our progeny. We do this primarily by encouraging them to develop those skills and social bonds that constitute a heavy investment in Jewish life. In plain English, if yiddishkeit is what a kid knows and where his friends are, it will be his default culture even once he realizes that there’s other stuff out there.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I wrote the following as an entry for an encyclopedia on ancient mathematics.

Tractate Kinnim. Kinnim is one of the tractates of the Mishnah, a late 2nd century compilation of oral rabbinic traditions. The Mishnah in general comments on mathematical and scientific matters very infrequently and only in the context of legal questions. There is no indication of use of symbolic approaches to mathematical problems. In Tractate Kinnim, however, an explication of laws of intermingled bird sacrifices apparently serves as a vehicle for developing a series of combinatorial theorems, albeit in non-symbolic language.

The background is as follows: bird sacrifices come in two varieties, which, following the Mishnah, we may call UP and DOWN. A set of birds might consist of only those that have been designated as UP birds (an “UP set”), as DOWN birds (a “DOWN set”) or of an even number of birds any half of which might be designated as UP birds and the rest as DOWN birds (a standard set). The birds are assumed to all be identical and the Mishnah deals with cases in which a number of sets have intermingled completely (Chapter 1) or partially (Chapter 2). The prior designations of the intermingled birds having been lost, the birds may now be redesignated as UP or DOWN subject to two constraints: 1. No bird originally from an UP (DOWN) set may be redesignated as DOWN (UP); 2. No more than half the birds originally from a standard set may be designated as UP or as DOWN.

The problem of determining the maximal number of birds that can be redesignated without violating either constraint is an entirely combinatorial one. A variety of problems are presented, using numerical examples, and solutions are given in as general terms as non-symbolic language permits. In the first two chapters, the solutions are mostly fairly trivial (with the notable exception of 2:3). For example, in any case of intermingling including an UP set, no bird may be designated as DOWN, and vice versa.

The third, and final, chapter deals with cases in which sets are intermingled but the rules of Chapters 1 and 2 were not followed and half the birds were redesignated as UP and half as DOWN in random fashion. The question is what is the size of the maximal subset of redesignated birds that certainly does not violate either constraint. The most interesting case is where a number of standard sets are fully intermingled. The language of the Mishnah (3:2) is as follows:

One [pair of birds] for this, two for this, three for this, ten for this, and a hundred for this,…the maximum is allowed. This is the rule: wherever you can divide the sets so that no woman has both UP and DOWN, half are allowed and half are not. Wherever you can’t divide the sets so that no woman has both UP and DOWN, the majority is allowed.

(The Mishnah attributes the sets to women because bird sacrifices were commonly brought by women after childbirth [Leviticus 12:8].)

The term “majority” is unclear here, as the Mishnah acknowledges by adding a rather opaque rule to explicate it. Consideration of the correct solution suggests that, though it is non-trivial, it is in fact the solution intended by the Mishnah. The correct solution is as follows: if the number of birds in each standard set are 2x1,…,2xn, respectively (in the Mishnah’s example the xi are 1, 2, 3, 10, 100), then we attempt to partition the numbers {x1,…, xn} into two subcollections A and B such that | |A|-|B| | is minimal (i.e., the standard Set Partition problem). If there is a perfect partition (that is, |A|=|B|), then the solution is that the maximal subset consists of |A| (= |B|) UP birds and |A| DOWN birds, which is exactly half the total number of birds. If there is no perfect partition, the solution is that the number of UP birds (and DOWN birds) in the maximal subset is max(|A|,|B|) where |A| and |B| constitute the optimal partition.

The case described by the Mishnah in which “you can divide the sets so that no woman has both UP and DOWN” corresponds exactly to the cases in which there is a perfect partition and the solution offered by the Mishnah ("half") is correct for that case. Moreover, the issue of partitioning having been introduced, the Mishnah's solution for other cases ("the maximum") could plausibly be referring to the correct solution, namely, the maximum of the two partitions.

A number of other cases considered in Chapter 3 of Tractate Kinnim are equally non-trivial and stretch the limits of non-symbolic language for conveying mathematical content. Whether their content suggests that symbolic methods must have been used to arrive at the conclusions is an open question.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Remember me? As MOChassid has quite correctly noted, I am on strike and, at least theoretically, I ought to have more time for blogging. Unfortunately, that just didn't happen.

So a few brief comments on stuff I would've blogged if I'd have had time.

1. For those who are wondering, the professors are on strike because they (we) want more money. It really isn't more complicated than that. There have been a variety of high-minded ideas bandied about suggesting that there is some higher ideal involved here -- the future of academia and such -- but that is all baloney. The claim that academics are leaving the country because they get paid more abroad is especially specious. It is true that good academics get paid more abroad but, nevertheless, there are many many more candidates for academic jobs here than there are positions available. Paying academics more won't change that situation for the better.

2. For those who've been following the JNF business, a follow-up. Since JNF has been trying to head off an inevitable court ruling preventing it from reserving land for Jews as is its mandate, they have been negotiating a deal with the Israel Lands Authority. As the deal now shapes up, JNF will trade any land intended for sale to ILA and this land will be made available to all comers. ILA will compensate JNF with other land. However, the land given to JNF will not be -- as had been reported -- land that is not sellable (lakes and the like) but rather land that is simply not likely to be sold. Moreover, JNF will be compensated with cash.

This should not cause anyone any relief. Since the JNF has now abandoned its mandate of holding land for the Jewish people, it has no reason to exist. In fact, it is a bloated bureaucracy that continues to exist merely to pay the salaries of its functionaries and the pensions of its retirees.

3. On the judicial front, Justice Minister Friedmann has proposed adding two professors to the judicial appointments committee (one chosen by the government and one by the university heads) and to replace one of the judges on the committee with a retired judge appointed by the government. The bit about the judge is a fine idea but the professors thing is wacky. The proposed change is too little too late, but the important thing is that its in the right direction.

In the meantime, Law Committee chairman, Ben-Sasson, has finally come out of the closet. He has been holding pointless and endless debates about the constitution, all so that in the end he can produce the IDI's proposed constitution. He has tried (with very limited success) to pretend that he is a neutral facilitator with no dog in the fight. But a few weeks ago he conspired with the IDI to deliver the committee to a five star hotel in Mitzpe Ramon, all expenses paid by the IDI, so that the IDI could pressure the weak links on the committee to drink the KoolAid. The ethics committee of the Knesset caught wind of it and killed the event. Instead it will take place this week in Jerusalem with considerably less fanfare.

4. If you'd try to distill the what-should-we-do-about-Chabad question into one perfectly formed dilemma, you couldn't do better than last week's giyur fiasco. A candidate comes before the beis-din in full Chabad levush, apparently speaking the lingo and sailing through the questions, until one dayan asks if he believes that the Rebbe is mashiach. He says yes. His candidacy was rejected. There it is in a nutshell.

For the record, I have no problem with people who believe too little. Jews are a naturally skeptical lot. But people who believe too much are a threat to whatever it is we do believe, not to mention a potential drag on the gene pool. I think the rabbanut finally got one right.

5. I recently read The Book, a very careful study of baseball strategy based on massive simulations. Overall, it's pretty good. But like everyone else, they miss the boat on where pitchers should be in the batting order. The short version is this. Batting order makes no difference except for the fact that the last time around the order some guys bat and the rest don't. On average, the number x hitter will bat 18 (that is, 162/9) times more per season than the number x+1 hitter. So the better the hitter the earlier in the order you want him to bat. (There are some fine points but they are minor enough that we can ignore them.) Now, in calculating the optimal spot for the pitcher, we need to take into account that the last time through the order, there will almost always be a pinch hitter. The authors of The Book take this partially into account and compute the statistics for the pitcher's slot by averaging pitcher hitting stats with pinch hitter stats. That's a mistake. The first three (or whatever) times through the order (when the pitcher is likely to come to the plate), the sequence doesn't matter. The last time through does matter and that's when there is almost always a pinch hitter. So, depending on the quality of your pinch hitters, the pitcher should probably bat sixth or seventh in the order. Why does everybody miss this?