[conspire] NYLXS Press Release on the OLPC Project

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Tue May 13 19:42:01 PDT 2008

Quoting Ruben Safir (ruben at mrbrklyn.com):

> I never noticed until now that most people write
> FOSS.  I keep the point, but your very right about this.  There is no 'L'

My point was not _limited_ to saying why "FLOSS" is bad.  I was also
pointing out why "FOSS" is only very little better:  Before a member of
the general computing public can have any hope of understanding what
this acronym means, he or she will need to first understand _two_ rather
abstract concepts that underlie it (free software and open source).  

So, as a matter of process, using this acronym among the general
computing public (or to reporters) tends to engender yet another
self-inflicted marketing disaster -- and therefore should be heavily

["political objections" to an ungendered third-person pronoun in English]

> No, I ment HE.  The male included both male and female and that became
> a political football, and for good reason, if not a reason I disagree
> with.  The presumption is that the languages formal use was bias and
> causes bias thinking.  I think in the case of he/she, eh.  I think
> that has little impact but it was low hanging fruit.

The best case for language-induced bias in this case was Douglas
Hofstadter's "Person Paper on Purity in Language", mirrored at
http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html among other
places, originally published in the Sept. 1983 _Scientific American_
("Metamagical Themas" column), and then published with post scriptum
in _Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern_
(1985) -- and on the Web.  The rather in-your-face essay text, but not
the post script, parodies the style of Mr. Spiro Agnew's famous script
writer, William Safire.

Though I read the piece when it first came out, I resisted its logic for
many years, because "they" as a singular pronoun is obviously illiterate
and gruesome, especially when combined with Americans' inconsistent but bizarre approach to construing corporations as singular or plural ("Levitz Bros. 
is having a sale at their Redwood City warehouse") because the
alternatives are all variously bad, because language politicians
look confused and change the subject when you point out rampant sexism
among speakers of languages that _do_ have ungendered third-person
singular pronouns (e.g., Turkish, Chinese, Farsi, Bengali, and Tagalog),
and because said politicians argue incompetently or dishonestly (pick
one) that the history of change in language makes their
favoured-yet-horrific change somehow desirable and/or inevitable.

And yet.  And yet, a fair person who reflects on the implications will
tend to admit Hofstadter's point:  If you hear, concerning a generic,
theoretical surgeon that "He will come by in an hour", your mind will
envision a guy, never a gal.  The default human being becomes male,
despite best intentions, and that will always tend to distort one's

That is why, although I don't respect every solution an English-speaking 
writers applies to this no-win situation, and (in my editorial capacity)
correct as definitively wrong any _Linux Gazette_ author's use of
"their" as a singular pronoun in his or her article submission, I
changed my own preferred solution about a decade ago, after finally
admitting that Hofstadter had made a telling point.

Anyway, words and concepts are what people make of them over time,
though those words and concepts drag their baggage with them --
including the baggage of their own structure:  The latter is why
he/him/his cannot work reasonably as a generic pronoun, because, no
matter how sincerely one says it's supposed to be generic and devoid of
inherent maleness, that is just not so.  You can try, but it doesn't
work unless perhaps you say "generic-he / generic-him / generic-his",
which is yet another cure worse than the associated disease.

The term "jihad" in Arabic, infinitive of jahada (he struggled, he
contested, he engaged in effort), and derived from the root J-H-D (juhd
-- effort or struggle), of course carries overtones of its warfare
sense, but the term was/is more malleable than "he" in English, and
immediately upon its appearance in the Koran and hadith was already
explicitly divided into four forms:  of the tongue, the heart, the hand,
and the sword.  

Most of the Koran's applications of the word are conjugations of the 3rd
Form verb "jahida", which in its primary meaning is martial in nature,
i.e., accounts of fighting or waging war against unbelievers and the like.
Other places use 1st Form verb conjugations (jahada), which is the form
that connotes exertion. 

> There is a lot of semetic works from that period that have survived.
> A lot of Hebrew and Aramaic.

But little Arabic or Proto-Semitic.  So, you're left with the Koran and
hadith, which certainly reflect the military nature of those years
(Mohammed participated in, I think, 19 military raids between arrival in
Medina and his death), but, as mentioned, already had nuanced uses of
the word in question.

> That's not a very good translation, FWIW.  Pick up the translation by
> Arey Kaplan.  It's probably the gold standard modern English
> translation.

I assume you mean

You know, I just might.  Having a careful translation and bilingual
interlinear volume might be really useful, next time I want to jerk the
chain of some fundies.  ;->  647 pages and 1.1 kg of mass means it's a
bit heavy for reading on the subway.  (It was the unsavoury experience
of trying to read the JPS translation on the NYC subway that made me
concoct some book covers saying only "Boring Novel" on the outside.)


> I think you would be making a long stretch to conjecture that anyone
> would use the word fundementalist outside of its plain working
> meaning, similar to Bontanist, florist, and procologist.

No, I think you're misreading my point.  My point is that words don't
have only "plain working meanings".  They also carry baggage --
connotations and associations.  The term "fundamentalist" in English
conjures up a chain of associations related to its history in the USA.
Even if that chain never literally reaches the Niagara Conferences in
the speaker's or the listeners' minds -- and it of course seldom would
-- that's the direction in which that chain of association will tend to
head.  Association with Protestantism tends to make one conjure up an
association with centrally-directed congregations with hierarchies
mediating members' experience.  Which in turn makes it a poor fit for
metaphorically describing Wahhabism (what _they_ would call "Salafism":
return to the practices of the predecessors, or salaf).

> > Yeah, I know, but the Levi'yim and and Kohanim are pretty much
> > priests without portfolio, at the moment.  
> That is also not right and one of the major major major misconceptions
> of Judaism.  They are absolutely core to the religion and perform
> religious ceremoney and functions, including but not limited to the
> highlight of every holiday service.  Judaism has no no way
> disenfranchised itself from Temple Services or the Preisthood.  The
> entire Jewish lituragy is centered on the Temple Service, as is the
> Passover Seder.

I think this is a case of your seeing off-white, and my seeing grey.

One way to clarify this is with a hypothetical:  If all of the Levites
and Kohanim suddenly decided that the rest of you sucked, and mass-migrated
to Alpha Centauri, taking them out of the picture as far as terrestrial
religious practice was concerned, what _would_ the effect on Earth-based 
Jewish religious practice be?

To answer that question, one has to invetory the effects.  Prior to 70

o  Levites (i.e., non-kohan Levites) provided music and song for Temple
   ceremonies, and functioned as guards for the Temple and Mt. Moriah.
o  They did maintenance and construction around the Temple, and washing
   of feet/hands before services.
o  They looked after and transported the Tabernacle, prior to the First
   Temple's construction.
o  They received no tribal lands (religious duties instead).
o  They received the Levite tithe (masser rishon, first tithe) from 
   members of the other tribes.
o  They maintained cities of refuge, and served as judges.
o  They performed translations and public explanations of holy text.
o  They attended to the Kohanim -- including the spreading of the hands
   made popular in geek/SF culture by Leonard Nimoy.  ("Live long and
o  Kohanim performed the sacrifices (korbanot) and Priestly Blessing
   (birkat korbanot) of the crowd.  
o  They could eat from the offerings, both the terumah ("thing lifted apart", 
   metaphorically meaning donation) and various other religious
   offerings including the silver coins left to redeem the firstborn males.
o  They had to abstain from wine and all strong drink.
o  To maintain ritual purity, they had to avoid contact with dead
   animals (or enter buildings containing dead people or body parts),
   and male kohanim might not marry a divorcee, convert, prostitute, 
   or dishonoured woman.
o  The High Priest (kohen gadol) was, in particular, obliged to marry a
o  Female kohanim (bat kohen) were prohibited from officiating at Temple
   service, but otherwise the same applied.

Since 70 AD:

o  Kohanim are called first to Torah readings (first reading), then Levites
   (second reading).  
o  Kohaim still perform the Priestly Blessing (birkat kohanim), with Levites
   assisting and washing their hands.  Neither have to be redeemed if
   firstborn male (pidyon ha-ben).  
o  They receive the redemption of the firstborn male (pinyon ha-ben) money,
   though traditionaly give it right back or ensure that it goes to a 
   worthwhile cause.
o  They still obey the rules of ritual purity.  (Hey, just in case the
   Third Temple gets built.)

I might have missed some aspects, but I think that's gathered most of

All told, if the Kohanim and Levi'im go gallivanting around Alpha
Centauri, _my_ interpretation is that the rest of you would be a little
put out, but your religious practice would be very little affected.

> > Nor did I so state.  I merely pointed out that both make members of
> > the faith answerable directly to God, and that religious figures
> > have no authority beyond respect and scholarship.
> In Judiasm, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Jacob, David, Solomon and Abraham
> all made vital errors and acts in defiance of the "Will of God"

Again, you have missed my point:  (Most) Christian denominations
interpose a religious hierarchy between congregants and God, to tell the
former what to think and do.  By contrast, in both Judaism and Islam, a
congregant's religious link is to God directly, not to a church
organisation.  Therefore, religious figures have status only through
congregants respect and recognition of their scholarship, not on account
of their inherent office.  Exceptions are vestigial or minor (or not --
per one's perspective):  the Levite/Kohen duties & privileges above on
the one hand, and the defunct office of Caliph on the other.

> It's a recurring theme, FWIW.  I don't know if Rabinical authority
> goes beyond scholarship. 

All of my best (but goyish) understanding says "no".  

[Christian principles supposedly being "constructed in direct opposition
to Jewish thought, and purposely so, while adapting Jewish lexicon":]

> There is the story of the Good Samatiun for starters.  The disposal of
> Halachah and movement of the Sabbath to Sunday... it goes on and on.

The parable of the Good Samaritan (Gospel of Luke only) was almost
certainly monkeyed around with -- the text tampered with -- by later
Church fathers, because Jesus and his followers would have known from
their own local knowledge that presupposing a Samaritan travelling the
road from Jerusalem down to Jericho would make no sense.  They would
have said "Huh?  What would a Samaritan be doing _there_?  They're all
up near Shechem [modern-day Nablus]."  A Samaritan moseying down the
road to Jericho would be about as likely, and about as welcome, as my
marching to Fallujah while whistling "Yankee Doodle". 

Best speculation I've heard was that the original parable involved a
regular Israelite showing mercy (rachmones) to a traveller in distress
(after a passing Levite hadn't bothered).  That's a moral hectoring that
wouldn't have been out of place in, say, Isaiah.

By "the disposal of Halachah", I assume you mean Paul of Tarsus's 
("St. Paul's") relaxing, in Acts of the Apostles ch. 15 of the 613
Jewish mitzvot ("laws") where the large flock of new, non-Jewish Christian
converts were concerned.  I see this as having nothing to do with
"direct opposition to Jewish thought", but rather a pragmatic
power-politics move to increase the numbers of adherents.  Moreover, 
since the Orthodox Jewish view was always that non-Jews are responsible
only for obeying the seven laws of Noah (no idols, no murder, no theft,
no adultery, no blasphemy, no eating flesh of still-living animals, and
set up a just system of laws to ensure the other six laws), I not only 
don't see what's "direct opposition to Jewish thought" about it, but
think it sounds quite congruent.

Movement of the sabbath to Sunday was not "in opposition to" Jewish
though, but rather was sort of a casual mishap where churches distant
from the Holy Land started stressing the first day of the week as the
weekly anniversary of Jesus's resurrection ("the Lord's Day").  This was
then cemented by Emperor Constantine I's 321 AD edict that made the day
an official day of rest in celebration of the Roman official sun god Sol
Invictus.  (This is before Constantine adopted his version of
Christianity, merging in much of the Mithraism popular among his
troops.)  Christians were laying low, and so having their gatherings on
the first day of the week, official day of rest and devotion, allowed
them to escape official notice more easily and look less like Jews, who
were pretty unpopular in the Empire.

So, not opposition, more like apathy and having other priorities entirely.

> > [1] Harry Turtledove wrote a very engaging alternate-history fantasy
> > in which the Byzantine Empire survived the Middle Ages
> I think by 1453 the middle ages was over, but I get your point ;)

The Fall of Constantinople is usually deemed, by historians, the
(arbitrary) end of the Middle Ages.  Thus, a Byzantine Empire that
didn't fall to Mehmet II's Hungarian-designed cannon would be, by
definition, one that survived the Middle Ages.

You'd probably like that book (_Agent of Byzantium_):  It's a hoot --
albeit out of print.  It's basically a cross between James Bond and the
TV show "The Wild Wild West", but set in an alternate history timeline.
See:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basil_Argyros

> No I didn't !  and I have new stuff to read.  BTW the Pidyon Haben is
> a MAJOR ceremony in Judaism and makes for great drinking and singing.
> I have a silver coin collection of Israeli coins stamped for this
> service.  The Bris itself is huge.

True story:  I got invited to a bris ("brit milah") aka circumcision
ceremony some years ago by a bunch of Israeli friends in San Francisco.  
Since respect would seem to require that I show up wearing a kipa
("yarmulke"), I did so -- only to find that I was simultaneously the
only gentile present and the only bloke bothering to have his head

It put me in mind of the caption on _Yediot Aharonot's_ newspaper photo
when John Paul II was the first Pope since Peter to visit the Holy Land:
The photo showed him embracing Prime Minister Begin -- and the caption
helpfully explained that John Paul was the one wearing a kipa.

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