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Yechiel Robinson

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The wisdom of Joseph [Nov. 28th, 2008|12:34 am]
Yechiel Robinson
There are good reasons why I've neglected this page, but I prefer not to state them. If anyone still checks this page periodically to see what I've written, hello! I am not delusional, and I don't think anyone cares what I write here, but I've been wrong before.

On the coming Shabbat, as on every Chanukah, the weekly portion Miketz describes Joseph's journey from pauper to prince in Pharaoh's court. Joseph solved the riddle of Pharaoh's dream: the seven fat cows foreshadowed seven prosperous years, and the seven lean cows foreshadowed seven years of famine that would follow after the years of prosperity. The story is well known and need not be repeated here in detail. Of interest to me is how Joseph continues after he has finished interpreting the dream. At that point, one might imagine, Joseph's job is done. He was summoned to interpret the dream, and he did exactly that. Yet here, unlike with the wine-maker and the baker, Joseph advises Pharaoh how to react to the new information. He advises Pharaoh to appoint a minister who will supervise a nationwide effort to tax the country one-fifth of its productivity for the years of prosperity, and preserve the food in cities for when it will be needed in the years of famine. Pharaoh praises Joseph's wisdom, and as Ben Zoma says (Pirkei Avot 4:1), the wise person sees the future -- not as a prophet, but understands how present circumstances will likely lead to future events, somewhat like a weather forecaster. Part of the wisdom surely lies not only in interpreting the dream but in suggesting a viable practical response to it.

I asked myself some years ago why Joseph chose to tax the people one fifth. Why not tax them one half? That way, if a typical Egyptian farmer would produce 100 bushels in each of the seven prosperous years and 0 bushels in each of the years of famine, his consumption would average out to 50 bushels in each of those 14 years, and would be balanced without disrupting his routine in any of those years. Would not such a solution be better than the jarring transition from prosperity to catastrophic widespread poverty and famine that occurred? Joseph's final words are that "the land will not be cut off by famine." This is less than optimistic! Joseph says that the famine will be bad, very bad. The only thing his tax accomplishes is to prevent irreversible destruction of the land and its inhabitants. Is this the best he can do?

There are some practical reasons why Joseph's tax policy was politically prudent. Taxing the population more than 20% was likely to lead people to fierce resistance and rebellion against a king who was confiscating as much as half of their hard-earned labor. Abuses of power in this manner were common in the ancient world of despotism (and are not entirely absent in the present-day societies), and the predictable result of such drastic policies, in the long term, cannot be other than a rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor. Joseph's more moderate tax was intended to sustain the peace.

Moreover, after the famine began, and the population became serfs to Pharaoh and his kingdom, Joseph made the one-fifth tax a permanent feature of Egyptian society, with only the priests exempted. Maybe Joseph foresaw a political opportunity even before the famine would begin that instituting a one-fifth tax would create an essentially permanent source of power and revenue for the kingdom.

I think there is a more fundamental point. To divide up the amount of produce in years of plenty and years of famine so that people would have the average quantity for each year would have defeated God's plan that there be years of plenty followed by years of famine. It's not just that the land would produce less than its wont in the years of famine: people needed to experience the famine, as that was part of the dream's interpretation. More generally, it is not possible to play games with God's plan. If God says there will be years of plenty followed by years of famine, humans cannot avoid that. No matter how hard they might try, there will be periods of success and periods of adversity, as everyone has experienced in their own individual lives, and as nations experience in macroeconomic terms. It is wrong to approach the situation and say: how can I prevent the economic recession from having any effect on me? It will have an effect on you, at least indirectly. This cannot be avoided. If you try to insulate yourself, it will affect a friend or a charitable foundation or community organization with which you associate -- and if you have no such connections, your problems are more serious than poverty or wealth. The recently unfolding scandal of a massive Ponzi scheme that has destroyed billions of dollars spread across myriad individuals and institutional endowments has directly hurt both my high school and my college alma maters. I do not intend to donate any more money to them than I would otherwise (I plan to pay off my student loans before I give Yeshiva University a single dime as a gift, not out of spite but just because it makes sense to think in those terms), but I am keenly aware of the situation. So how do you deal with a situation like this? You draw upon the strength of past success and hope for future success even if the present situation is bleak. If life were designed to be a flat, unwavering road, there would be no famine nor plenty -- everyone would have just enough to get by.

In a reverse scenario, the prophet Jeremiah is tasked to buy a field from Chanamel his uncle (or cousin) even though the area was soon to be destroyed because God promised that someday in the future people would buy real estate there. In the bleakest time ever described in the prophetic books, with destruction looming and the process of exile already in progress, God asks Jeremiah to demonstrate with a physical action that the future holds hope.
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Rambam and Free Will [Aug. 1st, 2008|03:49 pm]
Yechiel Robinson
In my last post I expressed hope that I would discuss the fifth chapter of Rambam's laws of Teshuva (repentance). Rambam posits Teshuva as a manifestation of humanity's ability to change itself for the better. Consequently, after he begins by delineating the process by which one may accomplish Teshuva, and the factors that may prevent a person from achieving Teshuva, he reaches toward the fundamental premise on which Teshuva stands: Free Will.

Quoting a mishnah from Pirkei Avot chapter 3, Rambam begins: "Permission is granted to each person" to make himself righteous or wicked. I am typing from my family computer which does not have Hebrew characters installed; if I were typing from my laptop, I would use Hebrew. The antecedent Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says HaKol tzafuy, vehaReshut netunah - "Everything is foreseen, but permission is granted." Rambam emphasizes the second clause and ignores the first for reasons that emerge later in the chapter. The contradiction between God's omniscience and man's free will is resolved either by saying God is not truly omniscient or man is not truly free. Either God's omniscience or man's free will, stated in absolute terms, is mutually exclusive. The alternative, which some people believe but I find unsatisfactory, is that God can watch and know from the outside what we will do but cannot compel us to do it. I understand the idea: I certainly do not feel compelled to type these words, but if it is really my choice to type them or not to type them, I do not understand how God can know that I will type them. Rambam deals with this question last, so I will revert to his order of presentation.

Faced with the dilemma of determinism versus free will, Rambam emphatically promotes free will as an absolute right and responsibility. I have lecture notes in Hebrew that I transcribed in Yeshivat Har Etzion in August 2002, six years ago, in the class of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of the Roshei Yeshiva (deans). Rabbi Lichtenstein appended remarks on Laws of Teshuva in 20-minute segments after two-hour lectures regarding the first chapter of Masekhet Ketubot. Though it was my second year in Yeshiva, my Hebrew writing is not entirely clear in calligraphy or meaning, but it suffices to provide a faint echo of Rabbi Lichtenstein's thought process. Rabbi Lichtenstein interprets Rambam's use of the word Reshut not as a desirable action, the way that in Masekhet Berakhot the Rabbis classify the Evening Prayer as a "Reshut" rather than an absolute imperative, but rather Rambam uses Reshut to mean a neutral choice: one may choose to be good or evil. From subsequent clarification, though, it emerges that a person bears responsibility to choose life, as the verse in Deuteronomy so beautifully commands. Since a person has the ability to choose good or evil, the only reason he could have failed to choose good is by his own negligence or malfeasance, so he must actively correct his ways. Rabbi Lichtenstein, citing his awareness of modern thought, posits Rambam's statements as a rejection of the psychological theories that a person is driven toward certain habits by his upbringing or environment. In Rambam's own words, "Do not let it pass through your mind what non-Jewish idiots and many Jewish fools say, that God stipulates from a person's conception whether he will become good or evil. It is not true. Rather, anyone can become a righteous man like Moses or a wicked man like Jeroboam, or wise or stupid, or merciful or cruel, or profligate or thrifty, and likewise for all traits." Rabbi Lichtenstein states, according to my notes, that Rambam rejects both religious determinism and secular determinism. Religious determinism would reject the statement that "Everything is in the hands of Heaven except fear of Heaven," because in this mistaken view even fear of Heaven is included. Secular determinism I defined previously.

What concerns me about Rambam's position, and what causes me to ponder it, is his absolute rejection that any force leads a person toward sin. I don't know that Rambam rejects altogether that some people are tempted toward certain sins for which others experience no temptation, but even if Rambam accepts that as fact, he does not consider it in his analysis. To me, any analysis of Free Will must account for variable levels of temptation among different humans. For example, the Torah says in many places: "You shall not eat blood." In Deuteronomy it uses stronger language: "Only be strong, not to eat the blood because the blood is the life-force, and you shall not eat the life-force with the flesh. Do not eat it, rather spill it on the earth like water. Do not eat it, so that you and your children will experience favor for doing what is right in the eyes of God." The Rabbis in Masekhet Makkot implicitly ask: "For what reason is such exceptionally strong language used to prohibit blood? Is it not sufficient to say 'do not eat it,' that God must emphatically command 'only be strong'?" They answer that it is a clever hint: even though man does not desire to eat blood, God offers a reward for abstaining from eating it. All the more, if a person overcomes a real temptation, he will be rewarded. (I am paraphrasing everything here from memory and have not checked the sources.) I find this answer to be wonderfully insightful on its own merits, but insufficient to answer the question. It is obvious to me that some people in antiquity, and probably still today, do relish the taste of blood. We all remember how our mouths tasted when we lost teeth in our youth: blood has a thick, milky consistency that would naturally appeal to a certain subset of the population. Perhaps in modern times the temptation is lessened by the professional mannerisms of food processing, but in antiquity, where one attained meat by slaughtering the animal one intended to eat, it is not difficult to imagine someone wanting to eat the blood as a kind of sauce to make the meat more palatable. All this is speculation, but my point is, some people desire blood and others don't. For those who do, the temptation to violate God's prohibition is greater, and in a fair accounting of Reward and Punishment, God would presumably reward such a person more for abstaining, and punish him less for transgressing, than for another person who lacked the temptation.

Eating blood is a politically neutral topic because nobody I know expresses or even conceals a desire to do it. If you translate the preceding paragraph from blood to homosexuality, you strike a mother-lode of problems. It is indisputable that some people desire homosexual contact and others do not. Those who desire it find it difficult to express what is the source of their desire: it strikes them as natural and obvious, and if anything, they may have difficulty relating to heterosexual people who find it equally obvious that their own orientation is preferable. So when God says homosexual relations are an "abomination", I feel it is entirely God's right to say that, and I castigate in the strongest possible terms the arrogance of Conservative and Reform thinkers who deign to suggest that God may have fallen behind the times. What emerges, then, is the problem that a nontrivial percentage of Jewish adolescents and adults experience a strong desire for something God calls an abomination. Can I honestly say that these people have no force acting upon them? I feel they do have some force acting upon them, but being human beings with Free Will, they are tasked with overcoming that force with an equal and opposite force to obey the statutes of God. Still, I cannot equate the challenge of a homosexually oriented Jew with that of a heterosexual one: the latter would say, "Of course I will not do that! I would not want to do it anyway!" For that person, there is really no choice to make.

I note here, in passing, that the existence of any law in any society implies that somebody might wish to violate that law by commission or omission. Thus, the prohibition upon eating blood implies that someone might think to eat it: perhaps not that it is tasty or worthwhile to eat it, but at a minimum, it may physically be eaten. Some of the more mysterious prohibitions, like the ones not to reconstruct the composition of the Anointing Oil or the Incense, require a modicum of analysis to consider: "Why would anyone want to do that?" In those specific instances, a rogue chemist may desire to experience the pleasant smell or warmth of these perfumes either to usurp God's metaphysical pleasure for himself, or to transform the material into a talisman of superstition. The context of the verses: "Anyone who mixes the Incense to smell it shall be cut off from his people," or "Anyone who mixes the Anointing Oil or anoints it upon a layman shall be cut off from his people," place emphasis upon the lay use of holy objects. These prohibitions become a special case of usurpation of holy items, what is called Me'ilah. In most cases, Me'ilah occurs only for items that actually exist, but for the Anointing Oil and the Incense, there is a special theory of usurpation to prohibit anyone even from creating these items. However, if one creates them to learn how to do it, but not to usurp its holiness, it is permitted.

The relevance of the preceding comment to blood and homosexuality is this: There must be reasons why God prohibits those activities. Even if you or I might not want to do them anyway, someone does. For that person, it is more of a challenge to abstain from sin.

The last two questions Rambam answers strain his ability to encapsulate complicated ideas in short paragraphs. His penultimate question: If God does not allow anything to happen against His will, how can a person have the ability to act on his own and possibly to violate God's will? Answer: Everything occurs according to God's will, yet humans possess free will precisely because God endowed them with Free Will. Just as the Creator desired that the scientific world operates according to laws, so too He desired that humans have the Free Will to do as they please. In other words, "Permission is granted" because God, as the creator of humanity, chose to grant it.

Finally, Rambam asks how God can know everything if it's possible for humans to do something that God does not "expect" them to do. He ducks this question, begging for lack of space, but briefly he states that humans really do possess free will, and as for God's knowledge, it is not like human knowledge where humans know about some reality external to themselves, but rather God's knowledge is an inherent element of His identity in a way that humans cannot understand.

If there's one question I would ask Rambam, I would want him to explain this in a little more detail. Perhaps he has already tried it in Guide to the Perplexed: that is a book I have owned for many years but never read. What excites me about this particular question, though, is the analogy from artificial intelligence to demonstrate that humans and computers can use completely different modes of thinking to solve the same problem. Of what relevance is this? Endgame tablebases in chess solve problems by analyzing a complete set of information for all positions in a certain endgame. They produce results which are shocking to humans. A 517-move forced mate is worthy of the verse Rambam quotes from Isaiah ch. 55: "For My thoughts are not like your thoughts, nor are your ways like My ways, says God." Theoreticians have called tablebases "God's Algorithm," and I wonder in all seriousness, does God think this way? In a chess position, each player has a number of legal moves (sometimes only one, but usually 20 or more). The game-theoretical result of any move, and the means of obtaining that result, can be attained in some cases by computer analysis, and are invariably knowable to an omniscient being because chess is a game where all information is available to the players at any time. Within the framework of possibilities, a human chooses a move, and he may preserve a good outcome or deteriorate to a worse outcome depending on the move. Bilam proclaimed: "God is not like a man who deceives, or a mortal who changes his mind," yet He did change his mind not to destroy Nineveh in the Book of Yonah. Why? Did God deceive Yonah? I don't think so. In the reality of Nineveh as it existed at the time of Yonah's proclamation, God was prepared to destroy the city. Consequent to the inhabitants' repentance and rectification, God decided not to destroy the city. The fact that God, in the end, did not destroy the city does not negate the fact that he would have destroyed the city absent any change. Thus, in the original reality, God foresaw that the city would be destroyed, and within that reality, He was right. The inhabitants of Nineveh changed reality. God did not know that the inhabitants of Nineveh would repent. God did know that, if they were to repent, God would save the city. So if you were to ask me, did God really know all along that Nineveh would be spared? I don't think that's a precise question. In the emergent reality of repentance, God spared them. To compare with chess, the players of Nineveh made an outstanding move, preserving their ability to survive and not be "checkmated." The analogy is not precise because in chess you cannot turn a loss into a draw or win, but rather, your opponent may allow you a chance to draw or win, and you must capitalize on that chance. If you have no chance to win, even the best move will not save you. It is by the mercy of God that he does not "play chess" with humans as a brutal force of perfection, but allows us to salvage a "lost position" by making a "good move." Surely Rambam would consider all this irrelevant to his theory, but my own analysis of the paradox between Free Will and Determinism allows for God to determine the outcomes of multiple scenarios and for humans to choose among them. Each element in this game retains some autonomy. Humans choose, as they are commanded and designed to do, and God retains his knowledge of what will occur consequent to those choices. But as to what the humans will choose, I believe God does not really know that in advance of when it happens, and I think my interpretation of the paradox is consistent with Rambam on this particular point.
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If you could ask Maimonides one question... [Jul. 21st, 2008|10:03 pm]
Yechiel Robinson
[I removed material. - August 7, 2008.]

Turning to the headline topic, if you could ask the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides (Rambam) one question, what would it be? An interested researcher could write a whole book of questions to ask this prolific scholar, whose achievements cannot be appreciated even by reference to superlatives. Still, despite Rambam's outstanding works in his commentary on the Mishnah, his Sefer HaMitzvot, the Mishneh Torah, and the Moreh Nevukhim, plus a few ancillary works attributed to him, some of Rambam's writings have troubled great Jewish sages for centuries since then. By keeping his writing so well-organized and on-point, Rambam has made it comparatively easy for us to contrast his statements on the same topic in two different places and to find inconsistencies among those statements. In contrast, it is probable that other contradictions in statements by other Rishonim are not so easily discovered or analyzed. Aside from internal contradictions, we find some real head-scratchers where Rambam deviates from the plain sense of the Gemara on which he bases his rulings.

A wise student asked the Rashba, as recorded in the Responsa of the Rashba (number 311) to explain why the Rambam writes in Laws of Bekhorot 2:6 (and in one other place) that if a Kohen seized an animal which was possibly but not definitely a firstborn (a "safeik bekhor"), the court will not remove it from the Kohen to restore it to the original owner. On the one hand, the Kohen needs to prove it is a bekhor, but on the other hand, after the Kohen has seized the animal, the original owner needs to prove it is NOT a bekhor if he wishes to reclaim it. There are some complicated issues regarding whether it is appropriate for the Kohen to seize under such circumstances, and what factors would cause the court system to intervene or to let the parties work out the dispute among themselves, but leaving all that aside, the Rambam rules that the Kohen may keep the "safeik bekhor." However, the Gemara in Bava Metzia chapter 1 begins with this statement from Rav Hamnuna, but Rabah goes on to disagree and suggest that really Beit Din should intervene and return the "safeik bekhor" to its original owner, and Rav Chananya supports Rabah, and that is how the Gemara concludes. For reasons that are not obvious, Rambam ignored the statement of Rabah and ruled in accordance with Rav Hamnuna, even though usually codifiers will rule in accordance with the last unchallenged statement in a sequence of statements or arguments. Clearly the Rambam decided the matter based on what the Gemara in a different context calls "shikul hada'at" (weight of insight) because he thought Rav Hamnuna's argument was more convincing, and supported that argument even though Rav Hamnuna technically did not have the "last word" in that sugya. The Kesef Mishnah summarizes the foregoing points in his comment on Rambam ad locum, and also cites the Rashba's responsum, but does not attempt to provide a convincing answer. Rashba does try to construct a logical framework within which Rambam's ruling makes sense, and perhaps he succeeds in reading the Rambam's mind. We will never know the answer to this puzzle, but I imagine that if Rashba could ask Rambam one question, he would ask to explain the famous sugya of "tokfo Kohen" - the Kohen seized the "safeik bekhor."

Ramban (Nachmanides) might ask Rambam about his second of fourteen rules for counting mitzvot in Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot. Ramban disagrees with many of Rambam's general rules and localized applications, so it would take them a long time to resolve their differences. However, Ramban's criticism of Rambam's second rule, though it maintains Ramban's beautifully respectful tone throughout, ends with unusually strong wording: "This book by the Rav" [before Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik lived, Ramban referred to Rambam as simply "the Rav," though in other contexts, a commentator will always refer to the antecedent author as "the Rav" or "Rabbeinu."] "...its ideas are sweet and entirely wonderful" [paraphrasing from the Song of Songs 5:16] "...except for this principle which uproots big mountains in the Talmud" [this is an offhand reference to the concluding sugya of Masekhet Horayot 14a where the Rabbis debate whether "Sinai" or "uprooting mountains" is better] "...and fells fortified walls in the Gemara, and this idea for students of the Gemara is bad and bitter" [Hebrew: רע ומר, a reference to Yirmeyahu 2:19] "...let the matter be suppressed and not be stated!" Those are strong words, but the importance of the underlying dispute justifies them. Rambam argues that a commandment learned from the 13 principles by which the Rabbis interpret the Torah or by an expansion of its literal meaning (ריבוי, "ribuy") is not counted among the 613 mitzvot unless the Gemara explicitly states that a particular item is "de'orayta." Ramban shows numerous deviations from this principle. Notably, Rambam writes in Laws of Eidut 3:4 that testimony is accepted mide'orayta only from witnesses who speak in person, but not by written depositions, so the entire authority of shtarot (written formal documents) in monetary law is derabbanan. Rambam's expansion of the rule preventing testimony by written deposition to disqualify any shtar mide'orayta, though a logical extension of that principle, creates numerous other problems which I will not discuss here. (Rav Chayim wrote an interesting analysis to suggest that Rambam classifies "shtarei kinyan" such as Gittin and Kiddushin as de'orayta, and "shtarei ra'ayah" such as a promissory note as derabbanan.) Ramban has no issue with saying that shtarot in general operate at the strength of de'orayta based on extensions of the literal meaning of the Torah, and he resolves the obvious problem of Gittin and some less obvious problems by stating categorically that shtarot are de'orayta. It's obvious to me, though I know little about these topics, that the substantive issues could keep an interested student busy for weeks if not months. Perhaps this is one question Ramban would have liked to ask Rambam.

I would like to ask Rambam about his understanding of free will as he describes it in Chapter 5 of Laws of Teshuva (repentance). Since the hour is late, I will reserve the details of Rambam's position, and my concerns about his position, for a later posting.

A cute midrash cited in the Gemara interprets a verse in the Song of Songs, דובב שפתי ישנים, to say that God moves the lips of "sleeping" people, i.e. that wise scholars continue to speak even after they have died. Obviously they do not move their lips in vain; they are saying something. To me it means that their scholarship lives on in their writings. Rabbi Soloveitchik's famous analogy of his father sitting around the table with Rambam and the other great scholars of history reinforces this principle.
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Sudden disaster on the Green Line [Jun. 8th, 2008|03:01 pm]
Yechiel Robinson
Kohelet ponders the suddenness and inevitability of death (9:11-12).

"I returned and saw under the sun, that the race does not belong to the swift, nor the war to the brave, nor bread to the wise, nor wealth to the erudite, nor grace to the insightful, because a moment and a disaster happens to all of them. For a man does not even know his appointed time, like fish who are caught in a terrible trap, and like birds who are ensnared in a trap, like them the sons of man are trapped for a terrible moment when it befalls them suddenly."

The translation is my own. It is not perfectly literal, but I prefer not to rely on the free translations available on the web if I do not fully agree with every word they use. I could cite the translation in the Jerusalem Bible or another reliable source, but for this context, a rough approximation will serve the needs of the reader.

I always am moved to tears, or at least deeply reflective thought, when I read these verses. Here Kohelet varies from his message about the injustice in the world, where righteous men suffer and wicked men prosper for reasons unknown to mortals. Kohelet grapples with this question of theodicy, which has bothered the rabbis of the Talmud and fostered a literature of responses from religious teachers until the present day. The formulation of צדיק ורע לו, רשע וטוב לו ("righteous person who suffers, wicked person who prospers") implies that there is an injustice or imbalance that somehow ought to be corrected. Here there is no justice or injustice. There is simply indiscriminate destruction. Everyone, regardless of their standing in life, experiences the same death.

Yet there is a special tragedy for people whose death truly is instantaneous as a result of a catastrophic accident. One moment, my friend Yoni Jesner was riding a Dan bus on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv on 13 Tishrei 5763. The next moment, a suicide bomber entered the bus and detonated an improvised explosive device on his clothing, and five people died on the scene, and Yoni suffered catastrophic brain damage and died the next day. He was, in a sense, "trapped" on that bus. I was touring the Galilee with friends from the Yeshiva that day, but I will never forget how I felt. I felt shocked by the sudden disaster, the moment of death that fell upon my friend. It was only last week that he had been studying in the Beit Midrash and prayed there on Yom Kippur, and now he was dead. We prayed in that day of doubt for mercy from God, but we knew it would not help. On 14 Tishrei I received a text message from the Yeshiva office, saying "Baruch dayan emet. The levaya for Yoni Jesner will be at Har Hamenuchot at 3:30 PM. A bus will leave from the yeshiva at about 2:30." I was already in Jerusalem, and I read the text message while walking on Jaffa Road. Riding from Har Nof to the burial center at about 3:00 PM, the taxi driver had Israel Radio turned on, and I heard the beeps followed by an announcement, at the top of the news, that Yoni Jesner's funeral would take place in a half hour. I entered the crowded funeral hall, which was standing-room only with more people unable to enter and waiting outside. The wall quoted a verse from Kohelet (12:7), "The dust will return to the earth where it once was, and the spirit will return to the God who granted it." I read the entire chapter in my Tanakh, which I carried with me in my backpack, as I waited for the proceedings to begin. The funeral itself was not especially memorable, but the sense of painful loss, that everyone felt so deeply just hours before the holiday of Sukkot would begin, will never completely leave me. Yoni Jesner is still dead, and the loss is still there.

I attended a ceremony to unveil Yoni's grave at Har Hamenuchot about 3 months later. His whole extended family from England and Scotland came to see it. (He lived in Glasgow.) I walked on Allenby Street when I toured Tel Aviv on the Friday of Chanukah that year, and everything seemed normal. I would never have known that a terror attack had occured here just a few months earlier. I met a middle-aged couple in London in 2004 when I visited that city on a class trip because my mother knew them somehow. They said they were distant relatives by marriage of the Jesner family. When they asked me how I felt about the situation in Israel, I said, "I ignore these tragedies, but I don't ignore them the way I used to." They admitted they felt the same way. I wish I could feel the pain even today, only because I do not want to stay on the sidelines while others are suffering. I feel that expressing pain for the suffering of Israel, wherever it occurs, is a moral responsibility, one which I have not fulfilled to the necessary extent.

On May 28, 2008, here in Newton, Massachusetts, another tragedy took the life of Terrese Edmonds, a 24-year-old MBTA train operator. I did not know this woman, but from the descriptions in the newspaper she clearly looked and was spoken of as a normal, respectable member of her community, one whose loss was closely felt by her family, friends and coworkers. This time, it was not the work of nefarious terrorists, but simply an accident. Edmonds was driving her train too fast on the section of track between Waban and Woodland stations on the Green Line, and her train struck the train in front of her, which was moving slowly. More than 100 riders evacuated the two trains, and about seven suffered serious injuries that are, thank God, not life-threatening as far as I know. The National Transportation Safety Board flew in a team of expert investigators to examine the possible causes of the crash. (I think they do this in any incident on a public form of transportation where at least one person is killed in an accident.) The investigators determined that the train and the signals were working properly, and that the signals were telling Edmonds to move forward at 10 miles per hour, not the 37-38 mph that the train's instruments logged immediately prior to the crash. (The other train was moving forward at 3-4 mph.) If there were no train in front, she would have been permitted to travel at up to 40 mph, but there was a train. She just didn't see the signal warning her about the train, and it's possible she didn't see the train itself when it came into view, since she didn't apply the brakes. With mechanical failure ruled out as a reasonable possibility, the only other likely cause is human error. But what went wrong?

I happened to walk near Waban station at about 6:00 PM yesterday on Shabbat. I looked at the signal just before the bridge where the trains pass under Beacon Street. I think this was the signal the operator needed to see. It's possible that there was another signal farther down the track. The accident occurred about 1000 to 2000 feet west of that location, opposite Dorset Road to the south and the Brae Burn Country Club to the north. I am generally familiar with this area, which is about 2 miles west of my family's house in Newton Center. I looked at the signal, and I wondered how it could be that such a clearly visible signal was simply missed? How did she not see it? Even if she was tired at the end of an hour-long train ride, and even if she was moving in the general direction of the setting sun (which did not appear to be a significant visual hindrance), and even if she was distracted by something happening behind her on the train, and even if (according to an unsubstantiated rumor) she might have been talking on her cellphone, I still don't see how this happened. There just doesn't seem to be a rational explanation. The best I can come up with is that she just assumed that the signal was green, and didn't actually look at it, and went ahead assuming that the track ahead was clear like it always is. Again, fatigue may have played a role in such a thought process. It's not a fully satisfying explanation, but I don't have a better one. I wish the NTSB investigators good luck in trying to solve this case because the safety of people I know will be enhanced by ensuring that whatever caused this crash does not cause another crash in the future. For now, it remains a mystery.

Not knowing the victims, I approach this case from the point of view of accident investigators, based on my experience watching downloaded videos and YouTube clips from the National Geographic Channel series "Air Crash Investigation," also known as "Mayday." For those who knew Terrese Edmonds, they care somewhat about the technical details, but they care much more about the friend they lost. Terrese, like Yoni, was like a bird or fish caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's a cliche, but it's exactly what Kohelet is saying: the place is the "trap", and the time is the terrible moment of disaster. Having survived a near-death experience, a serious injury, and a car crash in three separate events in the last three years, I know only too well that what happened to them could have happened to me. I thank God in what I think of as the "survivor's psalm" (Psalms 124:6-7). The speaker uses the same analogy of a bird being trapped to represent the specter of oncoming death, but this time, the outcome is different. "Our lives are like a bird that has escaped from the trap of hunters: the trap was broken, and we escaped. Our helper is the name of God, creator of heaven and earth." My death will come someday just the same, but when it comes, I should be blessed to know it is coming, and to allow my family to prepare for it, whenever that will be.

I am concerned about the presidential campaign and the Israeli negotiations with Syria about the future of the Golan Heights, but my clock just turned to 4:00 and I have to go. Hopefully I will write about this later.
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Checkers is solved [Dec. 14th, 2007|05:25 am]
Yechiel Robinson
My friend, Dr. David E. Sloane, kindly sent me a copy of “Checkers Is Solved,” by Jonathan Schaeffer et. al. Science 317, 1518 (2007).

Schaeffer and coworkers reported that checkers has been weakly solved as a draw with perfect play. Thus, either player can force a draw from the starting position of the game. This result is consistent with the fact that most games between grandmasters end in draws.

Checkers is the most complex game ever solved, with roughly 5 * 1020 legal positions. In order to solve it, computer programs were created that would calculate all possible outcomes in two directions: forward search from the opening, and retrograde analysis from the endgame. These two complementary paths would meet in the middle. A sequence of forced captures in the opening would eventually lead to an endgame position that could be evaluated using retrograde analysis.

Forward search differs fundamentally from retrograde analysis. The forward search began by generating a tree of positions in the opening. Each position was evaluated by an alpha-beta algorithm that uses heuristics to discard bad moves in order to focus on the best moves for each player. If a position was evaluated as “unclear”, further alpha-beta searches would continue deeper into the tree until a clear result was determined. A “proof tree manager” organized the results of all the alpha-beta searches according to the positions at the root of the search tree.

In contrast, retrograde analysis begins from the most elementary endgame position. In checkers, this is a position with only one piece on the board. Each elementary position is linked to a possible earlier position with two opposite-colored pieces on the board, where a Black piece can jump a White piece. This position, in turn, is linked to a position where White must move and allow Black to jump him. The retrograde analysis continues, building up an endgame database where every position either leads directly to an elementary win, or else results in a draw. Endgame databases for all checkers positions with 10 or fewer men were constructed, with a total of 39 trillion positions.

Retrograde analysis is a more precise technique because it methodically builds upon established knowledge without requiring a heuristic evaluation of the position. In contrast, alpha-beta search algorithms rely on heuristics to discard obviously bad moves. However, endgame databases require gigabytes of memory to store, so alpha-beta searches are more practical for positions with many pieces on the board. The combined use of alpha-beta search and retrograde analysis produces the most efficient computation.

I find this topic fascinating because I enjoy chess as a hobby. In my extensive reading about chess, I learned that computer chess programs such as Fritz, Rybka, etc. rely on alpha-beta search and heuristic evaluations for complicated middle-game positions. In openings the computers play mindlessly from an “opening book” programmed by human chess experts. In endgames with 6 men or fewer, the computers copy the moves from published endgame databases.

Endgame databases (sometimes called “tablebases”) have changed the way humans think about chess. Some well-established conjectures by humans were proven wrong. More than 120 years after Bernhard Horwitz and Josef Kling analyzed the endgame of two bishops versus one knight as a draw, Ken Thompson’s databases showed it to be a win for the bishops in 66 moves. Forced checkmates of up to 517 moves have been proven by the databases, but humans cannot understand the underlying strategy.

In his conclusion, Schaeffer argues that solving complex games such as checkers advances the capabilities of artificial intelligence for real-world applications, such as bioinformatics. The integral role of chess computing in the historical development of artificial intelligence supports Schaeffer’s view. However, I am fascinated not so much by potential applications as much as the theoretical quest to solve problems of increasing complexity, and to comprehend what seems incomprehensible. As computers produce gigabytes of quantum mechanical calculations, and thousands of researchers jump on the bandwagon of computational chemistry, it becomes more important to translate raw data into conceptual language that human chemists can understand.

(For more information on this topic, I encourage you to read the Wikipedia article on endgame databases [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endgame_tablebase], which is labeled as a “Good Article.” As the Wikipedia user “Shalom”, I am the main author of the current version of this article.)
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A follow-up regarding "Shut Down Stern" [Jan. 24th, 2007|08:09 pm]
Yechiel Robinson
I neglected to point to two other responses in the recent discussion about a theoretical coed YU. Josh Weinberg wrote Shutting Down Stern at the Cost of our 'Yeshiva'?, elaborating upon the standard religious objections to the proposition. Zev Aeder echoed this sentiment more eloquently in For G-d's Sake.

My feelings are mixed about the entire discussion, and similar discussions that have graced the pages (real and virtual) of the student newspapers over the years I've read them. On the one hand, many of the suggestions are silly. Some 20-year old students might think it's a grand idea to make YU coed, but the 50-year-old teachers and administrators, who have gained perspective about our university's mission that we don't yet have, know that such a proposal is preposterous, and know not to take it seriously. On the other hand, YU is far from perfect, and the discussion about how to improve it needs to start somewhere. There are several private forums for such discussions as well, but free expression in the newspaper, in the spirit of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, can only help promote ideas for positive change. If 9/10s of the opinions in the Commentator are not worth anyone's time, the remaining 1/10 fraction of insight justifies its existence and the many hours of writing and editing that make its publication successful.

A final note on this subject: People seem to write about this subject from their own perspective. Eitan Kastner, the gung-ho proponent of academic standards and academic reform at YU, wrote about the academic benefits of campus unification. Adinah Wieder, the co-editor in chief of the Stern Observer, and a student at all-female schools since her early childhood (as I recall from her editorial), wrote about the unique opportunities available for the women at Stern, which they would lose if they became merged into YU.

(I think everyone agrees that Stern is the minor partner to YU, and is shortchanged in some ways. The size of the respective campus libraries is a typical example of the problem. The question is what to think of the discrepancy. Ms. Wieder doesn't mind, since from her perspective, it's good for the Stern women to live on their own turf. Sarah Rindner, who wrote a letter to the editor for the recent Commentator, felt frustrated because she had to travel uptown to do research in the main library. Both points of view have merit.)

Finally, Josh Weinberg and Zev Aeder, who are faithful members of the core constituency of MYP yeshiva talmidim, wrote about the irrevocable damage that the presence of women would wreak on the yeshiva environment. In my last post, I wrote about the practical disaster of coeducation and the inherent ideality of the current arrangement. I chose that point of view because I don't feel very strongly that coeducation is wrong - I have lived with it myself for twelve years in Maimonides School and three months in Camp Moshava of Wild Rose, Wisconsin. (Readers, please remind me to tell stories about Moshava later on.) I even think coeducation is consistent with Torah Umadda and Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik's philosophy, since he founded Maimonides as a coed school. However, I give a tremendous weight toward institutional precedent. If YC and Stern have been separate for this long, and have developed independent identities, that really is a reason to keep them separate, contrary to Mr. Kastner's view. Also, I really do care about practical details, because I try to look at all the consequences of any idea - the obvious ones and the hidden ones. Adding bathrooms to Furst Hall is a hidden consequence, for sure, and is not to be discussed unless coeducation in general is up for serious consideration. However, for me, no detail is too small to factor in to a wide-ranging decision.

It works that way in life too: sometimes I may make a major decision based on relatively insignificant factors. I wound up in Camp Moshava for summer 2003 and '04 because Rabbi Yehuda Susman of Efrat, Israel, was recruiting students like me at the Yeshiva in Alon Shevut, a nearby village in Gush Etzion, to join him on a summer kollel in Moshava. He spoke for maybe half an hour about who he was, what the camp was about, and what we would do if we joined the kollel (a group dedicated to learning Torah and teaching it to the campers and staff). I took an application from him and eventually filled it out in the following two weeks. I remember that on the day of this meeting, I was feeling ill and spent most of the day in bed, but I managed to make it to the recruitment meeting. Normally, the yeshiva lifestyle is so hectic that there's never much time to think about anything else. (The notion of a yeshiva as a peaceful paradise for spiritual meditation is a myth. My yeshiva, like most others, is a very active place, high on sleep deprivation and low on privacy.) However, as fate would have it, I had all afternoon to lie in bed, nursing my fever and thinking about the prospect of spending a month or two in central Wisconsin, under the gracious auspices of Bnei Akiva. Since my mother had gone there during her high school days at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago during the early 1960s, and since Rabbi Susman seemed like a genuinely kind and knowledgeable man (which indeed he is), I decided to take my chance. I hope to describe on these pages how I traveled to Moshava the day I arrived there. That story will have to wait for later.
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A Response to "Shut Down Stern" [Jan. 23rd, 2007|10:19 pm]
Yechiel Robinson
In December 2006, the Commentator, the student newspaper of YU's undergraduate men's campus, published a news article and several opinions in support of merging Stern into a new, coeducational YU. For those who don't know, Yeshiva College was founded in 1928 (or maybe 1929) in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in northern Manhattan, New York City. Stern College for Women was founded in the 1950s, I think 1953, in Midtown Manhattan on Lexington Ave. and 34th Street. The two campuses are about 8 miles apart, and are connected by a shuttle service that runs in the evenings once every 45 minutes. There are some professors (for example, Shakespeare specialist Dr. Richard Nochimson, who taught a class on Tragedies and Romances that I took last fall) who teach on both campuses.

The Yeshiva administration has believed that separation of the sexes, especially among single young adults, is essential to preserving the purity and integrity of an advanced Jewish education. (Some believe that coed classes violate halakha outright. Others disagree but feel that the distraction of women is not conducive for intensive Talmud study by men.) Of course, men and women do need to interact in order to get married, but the thinking goes that dating is an extracurricular activity, which will not be enhanced by a coed academic environment. I agree with this view.

The most provocative article in the December issue of the Commentator was "Shut Down Stern" by Eitan Kastner, the editor in chief. Adinah Wieder, the coeditor in chief of the Stern College Observer, wrote a very strong response, and was clearly disgusted that Mr. Kastner did not respect the opportunities for women to utilize in their own educational environment. Many students wrote letters to the editor, criticizing the Commentator and its audacious proposal for a number of other reasons.

I also wrote a letter to the editor, but for whatever reason it wasn't published. (I don't really care about that.) I am posting it below. I do not discount the fundamental issues raised by other writers, especially Ms. Wieder, but what struck me was the practical absurdity of merging the two campuses. So that's what inspired me to express my response.

To the editor:

Several writers in the previous issue of the Commentator discussed whether the undergraduate schools of Yeshiva University should merge into a coeducational entity. In particular, Eitan Kastner suggested a plan to “Shut Down Stern” and bring the women to Washington Heights.

I would like to make the following comments.

1. Yehuda Rosenblatt’s article, “The Conundrum of Coeducation at Yeshiva,” should not have appeared on the front page above the fold. Describing an existing reality does not constitute front-page news. If President Richard Joel were to propose formally the creation of a coed campus, that would be front-page news because a significant event would have occurred.

2. Mr. Kastner mistakenly assumes that money can solve all problems. YU possesses an endowment in excess of a billion dollars. Furthermore, as he writes, selling YU’s real estate in Midtown would bring in millions more. However, I do not see enough space in Washington Heights to double the student population on the Wilf Campus. Local residents will not readily agree to sell large blocks of buildings and allow YU to expand outward.

3. Also, even if YU could purchase the land and build the buildings, it would be necessary to convert existing buildings to accommodate women. For example, if coed classes were to take place in Furst Hall, the administration would probably need to convert a classroom on the second and third floors into women’s bathrooms. The bathroom situation is not much better for women in Belfer Hall, the Gottesman Library, and the Zysman Hall (i.e. Beit Midrash) building. Inconvenient needs such as this call into question the feasibility of making the Wilf Campus coed.

4. Single-sex higher education is not a “relic,” as Mr. Kastner claims. I spent the summer of 2005 doing research at Wellesley College, which is otherwise a women-only school. In general, the women in my group (chemistry and physics researchers) were hard-working, intelligent, and friendly. Many students in coed colleges could only wish for the outstanding research facilities, libraries and professors that Wellesley offers – not to mention the scenic suburban campus. Admittedly, Stern College cannot compete with Wellesley in some of these aspects. However, the moral character of committed young Jewish women, who will sacrifice neither their community nor their intellectual aspirations, leaves behind the secular worldview of Wellesley. In either college, though, women can succeed as women, without a significant male presence.

5. There is nothing wrong with the current two-campus arrangement. The perceived inefficiencies in the academic and social sectors are relatively minor compared to the massive expense and inconvenience involved in transplanting Stern to Washington Heights. As the character Albany proclaimed in King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”

-Yechiel Robinson
YC ‘07

By the way, someone (my sister, actually) asked me how long it takes me to write these posts. This one took a half hour, not including the "letter" itself which took me two hours when I wrote it. The time commitment is such that I can't reasonably expect to update this journal more than once or twice a week.
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"Read what it says" - the art of Torah reading [Jan. 6th, 2007|08:23 pm]
Yechiel Robinson
I have read the Torah, or "lained", in Orthodox Jewish synagogues since my Bar Mitzvah - a period of 11 years. Most boys in my community, when they reach the age of 13, celebrate with their families as they become a Bar Mitzvah. The Hebrew term, loosely translated, means "subject to the commandments," namely the mitzvot which God commanded us in the Torah, and the additional rules imposed on us by the rabbis and scholars since the days of Moshe (Moses). The Talmudic definition may have been that a child becomes Bar Mitzvah (or, for a girl, Bat Mitzvah) when he develops signs of puberty (see Rambam, hilkhot Ishut ch. 2, for the details). However, in post-Talmudic times, the custom developed that all boys are considered adults (for example, to count for a minyan) on their thirteenth birthday, and all girls at their twelfth birthday, in order to avoid confusion and jealousy that is inherent in the case-by-case approach.

One of the hallmarks of the Bar Mitzvah celebration is that the boy receives an aliyah to read from the Torah, or to stand while the synagogue's Ba'al Korei (Torah reader) recites the text for him. Some boys, including me at the time, extend this custom to perform the entire reading for their Parashat Hashavua (weekly Torah portion). This normally encompasses about 100 pesukim (verses) but can range from a minimum of 30 (Vayelekh) to a maximum of 254 (Mattot-Massei as a double Parashah). There are two reasons why this has become standard. First, until a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah, he is considered a minor, i.e. child, so he is not allowed to participate in this ceremony. Now that he can, he does. Second, reading the Torah represents that the boy intends to make Torah a part of his life, and to fulfill the first of the three blessings that the community blessed him with at the moment of his Brit Milah, circumcision on his eighth day from birth: "Raise him for Torah, for marriage, and for worthy deeds."

With all the importance attached to a Bar Mitzvah's Torah reading, you would suspect it might be difficult to do. It is. Beyond reading Hebrew with vowels, which is difficult enough for a thirteen-year-old who must devote much of his learning time to fractions and grammar, he must read without vowels, relying just on the skeletal information provided by the letters in the Torah, which are mostly consonants. He must also stress the words on the correct syllable, which is notoriously difficult to memorize and can lead to correctible mistakes in the performance. (Laining is not like a musical recital; if you make a bad mistake, you really do need to go back and fix it. Part of the Torah reader's craft is to know which mistakes must be corrected.) Finally, he must embellish the words with the traditional cantillation notes, or trop. He must put all the information together, rehearse it so he can do it smoothly without mistakes, and learn to raise his voice so that the entire congregation can hear him. (This, too, is a challenge for many youngsters.)

With all this, I was fortunate that my brother Avi preceded me and could give me a helping hand and a watchful eye. More than that, though, I am thankful that my grandfather, Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, lived until a month before my twelfth birthday (he died in 1994), and taught me personally from his tremendous knowledge and love for laining and chazanut (cantoring). His voice was old and rich; he tried to strike every note perfectly and to hold it for as long as he could, savoring its beauty. My voice is young and not really similar, but the love for God's Torah, and the commitment to read it correctly and finely to my fellow congregants, are derived from his personal tutoring of me. Once I knew the rules from my Bar Mitzvah preparation, I was able to expand on them to learn the entire Torah well enough to memorize large sections of it. I have also lained Megillat Esther on Purim in many places, including an army base in Israel, and several Haftarot at Rabbi J. David Bleich's Yorkville Synagogue on E 78 St. in Manhattan.

Through all these years, I have developed a motto to live by: "Read what it says." During home preparation, whenever I catch myself making a mistake - for example stressing a word on the last syllable (milleraa) when it should be stressed on the second-to-last syllable (mille'ayl) - I will sometimes mutter to myself "Read what it says!" before I go back and make the correction. The only thing I care about is that my laining be as accurate as possible, without mistakes. Everything else, such as the speed, the volume, and the salary I get for doing it, are minor details in comparison.

"Read what it says" is more than just a way of expressing my frustration when I make a mistake. It has become a way of expressing respect for a book that is eternally true and perfect, about which I can only accept what it says as God's word. Certainly, within the boudaries of tradition, there is plenty of room for creative interpretation, but as to the text itself, that text is sacred and untouchable. Yes, I am aware of minor textual issues, such as the last letter of "petzua dakkah" in Devarim (Deuteronomy 23:2) - some versions have alef, some have hey. I am also aware of the heretical theories out there that Moses didn't write the Torah and probably didn't exist at all. None of those problems undermines the fundamental sanctity of the Torah. I do not question it; all I do is "read what it says."
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My contributions to the YU Commentator [Jan. 4th, 2007|12:28 am]
Yechiel Robinson
In my previous post, I described my position as a lonely pawn (or knight) among millions of chess players and fans. Now I will discuss another element: my contributions to the Commentator, the student newspaper of Yeshiva College.

Most of my articles for the newspaper appear on this list. The others are my obituary for Yoni Jesner and a news article about admission to law school.

By far, the most provocative of the articles have been my two opinion pieces in support of restoring the old Yeshiva University logo, or modifying the new one. My mother insists, every time she sees the old logo, that my articles and the wide response to them caused the administration of President Richard Joel to compromise. The only thing I can verify is that when I entered as a student in the fall of 2003 (also President Joel's first full year), the logo on the ID cards was a miniature of Dr. Samuel Belkin's logo from 1946. After President Joel introduced the new logo, it replaced the old one on the ID cards. When I lost my ID card recently and had it replaced, the Torah Umadda logo (and that was the whole idea, to include the university's longtime motto) was back. So I agree with the position I held then, and I'm happy that it had a positive effect in preserving the traditional "Torah Umadda" alongside the more vapid, albeit fashionable, mission to "bring wisdom to life" (whatever that means). My only regret is that I spent too much time on what should have been a one-and-done opinion piece. I started an online petition, which got about 20 signatures, and tried to coordinate efforts with Mandell Ganchrow to make the logo "flame war" a bigger issue than it was. What I remember as a lesson learned was what Rabbi Shalom Carmy, a respected Bible professor, said to me during the news cycle: "I once tried things like that when I was younger...the real petitions are the ones that take place in people's hearts." Amen.

On the other extreme, my two most important contributions to the Commentator, while not provocative or even newsworthy, are the obituary for Yoni Jesner (see link above) and my memoir of a trip to the American Chemical Society convention in Atlanta in March 2006. I wrote the memorial for Yoni, who as a friend was close but not very close, shortly after the event. I typed it in the spartan computer labs of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and used my own experience and a full-page tribute in the English-language Jerusalem Post as source material. I think my brother Avi was writing for the Commentator back then, and somehow the editors got in touch with me. Somehow, the terror of terrorism doesn't really hit home until you experience it personally. The opening lines of the famous song "Chazak" really make that point: "Another siren wails/ Just an ordinary day/ Was it anyone I know?/ How can life go on this way?". The introduction makes two clear points. First, there is a contradiction between the feeling that something horrible has happened, and the equally valid feeling that it's happened before and it's completely normal in the pattern of God's world. Second, we always tend to wonder, "Was it anyone I know?" Yes, in the death of Yoni Jesner, it was someone I know. I will not forget him.

I have lesser emotions about the chemistry conference, but I consider it a formative experience, from which readers can learn about the world beyond college, and beyond whatever field of study or work they are currently doing. Chemistry seemed like a relatively small world before I came to the conference: just read a few textbooks, learn the organic chemistry reactions and lab techniques, and run the experiments, and you will leave college knowing chemistry. The conference, while welcoming almost a thousand undergraduates, really focused me on what happens after college. There are so many people to meet, and so many fields of research to study, that two days and a morning were just not enough. It was important for me to understand that, if I continue in chemical research beyond this year, I will be learning things I really don't know, and it will not be easy. I hope it works out for the best.
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How soberknight came to dominate the chess geek universe [Jan. 3rd, 2007|12:17 am]
Yechiel Robinson
I mentioned on my previous post that, until now, my online identity has consisted mostly of contributions to chess dialogue. This has occurred mostly on chessgames.com, a free online database with hundreds of thousands of games, the opportunity to "kibitz" (comment) on those games, and some other cool features. I have been a free member of chessgames for the last three years, but I'm too cheap to become a paid member. (Also, I don't want to put the purchase on my parents' credit card because I don't think it's fair to them, and I don't have a credit card that's truly my own.)

I started what you might call a chess blog on the player page of Robinson, and created a personal profile under the name soberknight. The name "soberknight" was intended to make fun of another chessgames user, "drukenknight" (sic), who is no longer active in the community. My first ever post was a response to drukenknight's suggestion that Paul Morphy could have won with 8.Bxf7+!? instead of 8.Nc3 in the famous Opera House game. Maybe he could have, but from a practical standpoint, he chose the best developing move. I do suspect that many masters in history, such as the endgame specialist Rubinstein, would have been willing to play 8.Qxb7 and proceed to a queenless middlegame. But that is beside the point: I had seen Edward Lasker, in his autobiography "Chess Secrets," produce a solid page of analysis showing why 8.Bxf7+ would have given Black wicked counterplay at the expense of the exchange (a rook lost for the bishop). With best play, I believe that the line would have proceeded eventually to a perpetual check by Black, who winds up with a material deficit but is unable to finish the attack against White's exposed king.

Yes, I have read chess books and columns since the age of 16, almost eight years ago. (I just turned 24 in December 2006.) My first chess book was "Wonders and Curiosities of Chess" by Irving Chernev. Chernev is a wonderful author, and communicates successfully his tremendous love and passion for the royal game, which influenced my own interest in studying it. He can be faulted, however, for his suspect analysis, which covers the basic threats but falls below master class. For example, in "Logical Chess, Move by Move," he doesn't include any games with the more modern openings such as the Sicilian and the King's Indian. Another problem I have with the "move by move" approach, which is necessary for correspondence chess, is that it really doesn't help much for over-the-board chess. Of course, if you hang your queen on even one move, you lose. (Unless your name is Leonid Stein, who survived the unthinkable blunder in this farcical game versus Jaime Emma). However, in a positive sense, chess is about making short-term and long-term strategies. If you play through the games of Rubinstein, Nimzovitch, Lasker, Kasparov, and many of the other all-time greats, you see that they considered each move carefully, but as often as not, those moves were coordinated in a larger plan to attack or defend on a certain sector of the board, or to exploit an opponent's weakness in pawn structure or king safety or otherwise. Over the board, you need to focus on the overall plan, and then ask yourself, how do I get to the next step? I rarely achieve mate in the opening or middlegame. The point is to gain the initiative, mount an attack, win material somehow, and convert that material advantage into a victorious endgame. That is the pattern most of my victories follow. My weakness lies in complicated positions, where I can't simply pick on my opponent's weaknesses because he's busy attacking me. I don't defend well, and I generally don't play middlegames well. But if I can make it to the endgame a pawn ahead, I like my chances to convert that extra pawn to a full point.

Another criticism for Chernev is for his book "Practical Chess Endings." First, only about half of them are practical, and the other half are typical endgame studies in the fanciful artistic tradition. More importantly, the studies -- all 300 of them -- are "White to play and win." There is not a single draw study, not even Richard Reti's classic of 1922 where White's king manages to chase down the Black h-pawn which seemed out of reach. From a practical perspective, it is equally important to draw a drawn game as to win a won game. The typological draw of KRPKR, where the defending king blocks the pawn in front and the rook gives check from behind, should also appear in any practical guide. That said, it is a nice collection of studies, and I enjoyed several of them. In particular I was impressed by the ingenuity of Grigoriev and Rinck.

I have read chess books by other authors too. I have nothing much to say about any of them. I spent a long time many years ago memorizing lines from Modern Chess Openings (13th ed.) and a more ancient manual by Israel A. Horowitz. Currently I read the weekly columns at chesscafe.com, especially those by Harding, Gijssen, Dvoretsky, and Muller. I also check Tim Krabbe's chess curiosities to see if he has updated his Open Chess Diary.

I play with some friends on the Yeshiva University chess team in the Bankers Athletic League of New York City. In my sophomore year I went 5-3 with no draws, and like any competitor, I feel that I should have done better than that. One of my favorite wins was against a fellow who wasn't feeling so well, and blundered his knight on move 10. I wasn't able to finish him off, though, until 40 moves later. Last year I played one game, a Queen's Indian which I drew in a lost position because my opponent was in time trouble and accepted my offer. (I might have won by forfeit, but I didn't want to.) This year I have not played, and I still want to, but life doesn't always leave time for such things. Which is why I'll end this post and go to sleep now.
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