Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

This oldie but goodie has surely been shared many times, but it’s nice to see this particularly pithy formulation. C. Northcote Parkinson was a naval historian, who unintentionally became something of a management theorist through his trenchant observations of how large bureaucracies work.

In the third chapter [of the book Parkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Administration], “High Finance, or the Point of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson writes about a fictional finance committee meeting with a three-item agenda: The first is the signing of a £10 million contract to build a [nuclear] reactor, the second a proposal to build a £350 bicycle shed for the clerical staff, and the third proposes £21 a year to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee.

  1. The £10 million number is too big and too technical, and it passes in two and a half minutes. One committee member proposes a completely different plan, which nobody is willing to accept as planning is advanced, and another who understands the topic has concerns, but does not feel that he can explain his concerns to the others on the committee.
  2. The bicycle shed is a subject understood by the board, and the amount within their life experience, so committee member Mr Softleigh says that an aluminium roof is too expensive and they should use asbestos. Mr Holdfast wants galvanised iron. Mr Daring questions the need for the shed at all. Holdfast disagrees. Parkinson then writes: “The debate is fairly launched. A sum of £350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of accomplishment.”
  3. Parkinson then described the third agenda item, writing: “There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanised iron, but every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter, and they will end by asking the secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting.”

Parkinson, in the book, considers whether the discussion time will in fact keep going up as the amounts become even more trivial, reaching infinity for an amount of zero. He concludes that at some point, people will decide the sum is beneath their notice and tune out altogether.

International Shoah Memorial Day: Chiune Sugihara (“The Japanese Schindler”), the Teheran Children, and David Draiman’s powerful memorial song

In observance of International Shoah Memorial Day, January 27 [the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz death camp], a few items.

(1) Here is an interview with survivors and escapees who remember the “Japanese Schindler”, the diplomat Chiune Sugihara.

Sugihara was appointed vice-consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania in 1939. After the USSR occupied sovereign Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from the Nazi war and murder machine tried to flee eastward. “Sempo” Sugihara issued Japanese transit visas that allowed such refugees as could afford a ticket to board the Transsiberia Railway and travel to the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, and hence by boat to Kobe, Japan (the one town in Japan that had a significant Jewish community). His instructions from his superiors were that such transit visas could only be issued to people who had entrance visas to a third country: in the beginning the Dutch consul helped out by issuing entrance visas to the Dutch Antilles and to Suriname, but eventually Sugihara ignored orders and hand-wrote about 6,000 visas until the consulate was closed, and he himself reassigned to Königsberg, East Prussia (present-day Kaliningrad, Russia), later to Prague and to Bucharest. He reportedly passed his last batch of visas from the train window as the train was pulling out of the station.

Many of the “Sugihara visa” holders spent the war in Shanghai, including the parents of a friend of mine. (Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany but for the most part had no idea what Jews even were, let alone shared the obsession with killing them.) Sugihara’s act — in open defiance of his superiors — was culturally unthinkable on the one hand, but on the other hand brings to mind the famous story of the 47 Ronin, with its conflict between obedience and honor.

(2) The story of the “Teheran Children” (Hebrew Wikipedia page here) and how they escaped​ is not well known outside Israel. Below follows a documentary in English. The foreword to a book in progress can be read here.

(3) [Reposted] David Draiman, the frontman of heavy metal band Disturbed, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family adn actually trained to be a chazzan (cantor). Even though he lost his faith later, he remains connected to his Jewish roots, and it is hard not to hear the echoes of chazzanut in his vocals. The song below is his response to Shoah deniers: if heavy metal isn’t your thing, then just read the lyrics.

They have a frightening desire for genocide
They wouldn’t stop ’till what was left of my family died
Hell-bent on taking over the world
You couldn’t hide in the shout of conformity
We can’t forget how we were devastated by the beast
And now we pleaded with the captors for release
We were hunted for no reason at all
One of the darkest times in our history

[CHORUS:] All that I have left inside
Is a soul that’s filled with pride
I tell you never again
In a brave society
Didn’t end up killing me
Scream with me, never again…not again

A generation that was persecuted endlessly
Exterminated by the Nazi war machine
We will remember, let the story be told
To realize how we lost our humanity
You dare to tell me that there never was a Holocaust
You think that history will leave the memory lost
Another Hitler using fear to control
You’re gonna fail this time for the world to see


For the countless souls who died
Their voices fill this night
Sing with me, never again
They aren’t lost, you see
The truth will live in me
Believe me, never again


Chair of Belgium’s largest party: “The Left must choose: open borders or a welfare state”

[For an interesting window into Belgian politics, see the following note that was posted [in Dutch, English translation mine] to the Facebook feed of Bart De Wever, mayor of Antwerp and chair of the center-right N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) party.
Had his name been Burt Weaver, it could almost be an article in National Review or another conservative magazine in the Anglosphere. Milton Friedman would surely nod in recognition at the title. — Nitay Arbel]

The Left must choose: open borders or a welfare state

Bart De Wever is the chair of [the] N-VA [party] and mayor of Antwerp
The migration crisis has confronted Europe with its own moral nihilism. Citizens that form a human chain around the [Brussels-]North [railway] station, or put up transient migrants for the night, touch a soft spot in all of us. Suddenly we are wrestling with the age-old question: what does it mean to be a good person? What are we bidden to do? And by whom? And to whom? The Christian heritage that we still nurse from after the twilight of G-d, dictates to us that we should treat our neighbor as we would treat ourselves. But how near must our neighbor be?
In this moral confusion, an industry of leftist lawyers, NGOs, and activists has found a meal ticket. The present government, they claim, follows a policy that is inhuman, egotistic, and heartless. This is a subtle form of moral blackmail. For whoever does not agree with them, cannot be a good person. And who wants to be a bad person? Out of sincere moral compassion, we are all inclined to go along with this leftist discourse.
But, though the migration industry seems motivated by the will to do only good, rather ideological motivations hide behind this moral facade. I cannot dispel the impression that the left is cynically exploiting the migration crisis in order to, through judicial warfare [lawfare] and moral blackmail, make the concept of ‘borders’ so porous as to hollow out the nation-state. For some cosmopolitans, this is wish fulfillment. But the consequences are enormous, and there is room for doubt whether they are equally advantageous for all citizens.

A healthy res publica [body politic]

Borders do not just delineate our democracy and citizenship, but also our implied solidarity. Today we know who can make use of our social security system and why. A healthy body politic creates an ethical community where every citizen shoulders responsibility for the collective, but  also knows (s)he can count on the community if needed. In this context, net taxpayers do not object to contributing, even as they do not personally know the fellow citizens who benefit. The social security system we have built on this bases is among the most open and generous ones in the world.
 But if we [start] say[ing] that there are no more borders and anyone should be able to count on our solidarity, we enter a situation in which there are no more fellow citizens with whom we can show solidarity, but only fellow humans who live here today, elsewhere tomorrow. Human rights are, however, not [the same as] civil rights. Everybody is born with the inalienable right to life — that is [an example of] a universal human right. But you don’t get born in Sudan with the universal and inalienable right to access to a Western European social system.  That is a civil right, which you have when you happen to be born in that Western European nation-state, but which can also be acquired if you follow certain procedures [for naturalization] and fulfill the requirements.
If we start universalizing every civil right, we need to accept the consequences and accept that our current standard of living becomes unsustainable, simply because we won’t be able to afford it anymore. Then you get a denuded social system for paupers, which has no more carrying capacity—for it is difficult to remain in solidarity with people who enjoy the fruits of the social systems, but never have contributed to it and in many cases never will contribute. The strongest will withdraw into gated communities where their children will attend private schools, and the denizens will pay themselves for their own private pension and healthcare. Such a system is perfect if you manage to turn your life into a success. If you don’t, tough luck.

North American model

Europe will then evolve toward a more North American societal model, albeit it with even less of a social safety net. For the US has the geographic advantage that they are surrounded by two oceans, and, to the North, by a rich country with a very high standard of living. Only on the southern border are their migration streams that are difficult to contain, and they have been trying to seal that border hermetically since long before the coming of Trump. Europe, on the other hand, is but a peninsula of the enormous Eurasian landmass and separated from Africa only by an inland sea. Without enforced borders, people can simply walk into Europe. Allowing this, or not doing so, is a choice.
And our federal government has made that choice. Transit migration is not a European problem but a Franco-Belgian problem. We are the only countries with a passable border to the UK. Through the dismantling of the tent camps in Calais, the problem has shifted entirely to our country. Our government policy is to prevent [the emergence of] a second Calais at all costs. But a second Calais is emerging out of sight. Through the collaboration between left-wing NGOs and ditto mayor, and through various acts to morally blacken government policy and to suspend it[s enforcement], the left is now de facto itself organizing the transit migration, even though it is de sure prohibited. At the same time, the moderate left keeps claiming they are not advocating open borders — at least the extreme left is upfront about this.
Don’t we have the duty to help people in need? Of course. But those who can help themselves are not in need. Anyone who can travel thousands of kilometers from East Africa to end up in a Western European welfare state — not with the intention to request asylum there but to travel to another country — may be in dire poverty, but is not in an acute emergency. An emergency is a threat to life, not the desire to lead a pleasant life, however understandable be that wish. There are 37 million Sudanese, each of whom undoubtedly wants a better life. Do we have the moral obligation to take in all 37 million? And what about the rest of Africa?

Absorb newcomers

The left must dare to speak things through: what do they really want? Do we have to take care of everyone, and does that need to happen via immigration? Fine by me, but then we won’t be able to maintain our social system at the current level any longer. If we choose that path, there are two options left for us: a closed social security system only accessible to people who contribute, or its collapse. Our left-wing “gutmensch” [German loanword, idiomatically equivalent to “bleeding heart liberal”] will in its absolute goodness achieve just the opposite of what he claims to want: the total demolition of the welfare state.
I stand for a different policy. A policy with European efforts to absorb refugees in their own region, and with closed borders. A policy with strict controls on legal migration, where, if necessary, those we allow in are emancipated/acculturated in the Enlightenment values, and put to work as quickly as possible in order that they are able to contribute to our prosperity, and thus to our social security. In this way, we can absorb newcomers and enjoy their talent. In this way, our social security can remain open, freely accessible and generous for everyone. But then we must first dare to make difficult choices and dare to implement the chosen policy. Politicians must let the common interest prevail over their personal conscience, however hard it may be.
Hannah Arendt concluded the second part of her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” with a chapter that is controversial on the left until now: ‘The Decline of the Nation of the Netherlands and the End of the Rights of Man’. In it she argues that we need the nation-state and borders. It is not only the demarcation of our democracy, the outline of the rule of law, and the basis on which we organize our solidarity; it is also the only working mechanism that can enforce human rights. The nation-state is literally vital. Let us be careful that the dream of the “gutmenschen” does not end in a nightmare for us all.

Rabbi Akiva, “The cold equations”, and “The gods of the copybook headings”

There is a Talmudic passage (Bava Metzia 62b, reference via concerning the hypothetical of two men in the desert, of which only one has a water flask. (Like law school today, the Talmud is big on hypotheticals.) There is not enough water for both to survive, but enough for one.

R’ Ben Petura said that it was better that both should die than that one would see the death of the other. R’ Akiva, however, overrules him, saying that the man with the bottle should drink the water, quoting Leviticus 25:36 ‘Your brother’s life is with you’

Elie Wiesel is reported to have commented on this: “Rabbi Akiva was very hard, very hard on the survivor.”

I was reminded of this while reading the classic, chilling short SF story “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. The first time I read it, I was shaking all over, and it still elicits a strong emotional response whenever I read it.

Briefly, here’s the plot. A survey party on an alien planet sends out a distress message that they are about to die from a plague, and that their supply of vaccine has been destroyed in a natural disaster. The nearest source for the vaccine, a spaceship in hyper transit, sends out a shuttle into normal space to deliver it. The shuttle has a precisely calculated amount of fuel for a one-way trip (the pilot will, nolens volens, have to join the survey party), with a negligible margin for error. After he has left, he discovers a stowaway: a young girl who was hoping to pay a visit to her brother on that planet.

If he leaves her aboard, both they and the seven people awaiting the vaccine will die. There is no way to hand off the vaccine in-flight. The pilot gets on the (presumably hyperspace) radio and runs through all possible options with the mothership, and all conclude that the only ‘solution’ is an extremely unpalatable one: for the girl to be jettisoned into space — for her to die that eight others shall live. Even for the pilot to do the chivalrous thing and sacrifice himself is not an option, because she doesn’t know how to pilot the shuttle and cannot be taught quickly.

The story is a heart-rending one to read precisely because it is devoid of sentimentality. Eric Flint, who has been editing Tom Godwin’s work posthumously for republication, points to the implausibility of the shuttle being sent out with no margin for error on the fuel. And anyone reading this who is not heartless hopes for a ‘deus ex machina’ solution to avoid the heartbreaking end.

But of course, that would have defeated Tom Godwin’s purpose, which as far as I can discern was twofold. First, it was to present a moral dilemma akin to that of R’ Akiva, but with the stakes changed from “one vs one” to “one vs many”.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, to express his view of the Universe as a cold, uncaring place that has no particular interest whether the laws governing it are emotionally comforting to human life. And where nobody can ignore ‘the cold equations’ in the long run, or the Universe will present the bill.[*]

The famous Kipling poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, expresses this latter thought. Its full text can be read here.


A ‘copybook’, I am told, is the British English term for a preprinted book in which elementary school pupils learned penmanship by copying out short phrases — usually pithy proverbs, sayings, or admonitions. Interestingly enough, both Glenn Reynolds (an American law professor better known as the “blogfather” Instapundit) and yours truly (likewise born on the seam line between Boomer and Gen-X) interpreted “copybook headings” as something else, namely column sums on a balance sheet. And passages like these sure admit of such a reading:

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”


Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

“The gods of the copybook headings” or “the cold equations”: They are neither good nor evil. They just are, and we ignore them at our greatest peril. No matter how much those of us of a liberal temperament (some of whom may actually be conservatives by conviction) might like it to be otherwise, the Universe (and human nature) are what they are, not what we would like them to be. And of course, like in science or engineering, for every “cold equation” we know there are ten, or a hundred, that we don’t know.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome…
[*] I note in passing that Godwin’s writings display a fascination with human survival in inhospitable environments. This bio wonders whether this stems from Godwin earning his keep as a surveyor around the Mojave Desert.

Book of note: “The Personalized Diet” by Eran Segal and Eran Elinav

I have blogged earlier about the book by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt and have discussed there in passing the pioneering work by Weizmann Institute scientists Eran Segal and Eran Elinav on the individual microbiome (our “gut bacteria population”) and how it affects blood sugar levels. Now the duo has teamed up with editor Eve Adamson, and together they have put out a popularized book:

I am familiar with some of the original papers in top scientific journals—the book is of course much more readable, and the authors and editors have done a good job of presenting their work in lay language while preserving the broad strokes of their work.

The bottom line of their research is this: each of us carries a whole ecosystem of bacteria in our intestines, which help us digest and absorb food. The specific mix of bacteria varies between individuals, and hence so do our responses to different foods. While weight gain/loss is best seen as an outcome—one aspect of overall health—glycemic response, the changes in blood sugar levels after a meal (“postprandial glucose response”) are sufficiently rapid that they can be monitored in real time (e.g. with a continuous glucose monitor) and correlated with what the person ate (logged in a smartphone app). Doing this for thousands of people is a big-data project par excellence, and this is how computer scientist Segal teamed up with gastroenterologist Elinav.

But this isn’t where it ends. Gut bacteria populations can of course be obtained from stool samples, and subjected to analysis—another aspect of the massive big-data puzzle. Moreover, some of what they infer from the data can be checked in an animal model—for instance, certain gut bacteria can be administered to sterile mice and their weight gain (or lack thereof) in response to certain food mixtures tested on a much shorter time scale than would be possible in slow, relatively large, and long-lived mammals like us.

The duo brought different, complementary perspectives to the problem, not just scientifically but personally. Elinav always loved to take machines apart and see how they fit together (fittingly, he did his military service aboard a submarine), then became fascinated with living organisms. He ended up studying medicine, then specializing in internal medicine. During his residency, he was exposed to the human suffering caused by “metabolic syndrome” (the term given to the combination of severe obesity, adult-onset diabetes, fatty liver, hyperlipidemia, and the complications thereof). He realized that they spent all their time as doctors dealing with the consequences and complications rather than with the root cause.

Segal, on the other hand, was an avid long-distance runner in his spare time. He started experimenting with different nutritional approaches to improve his endurance as a runner, assisted in this pursuit by his wife, a clinical dietitian. As he dove deeper into this and observed diets of fellow runners, it became increasingly clear to him that there was no one-size-fits-all, and that recommendations that were held to be gospel truth (or Torah from Sinai, in our case) were, in fact, counterproductive for some. Why do some runners who eat dates before a run become energized and others exhausted? Who do some do best with carb-loading, and indeed thrive on high-carb diets, while others quickly pack on the pounds and suffer from low energy?

Segal was already involved in the computational study of the human genome at the time and then started reading about the emergent field of study of the microbiome. One thing led to another, a mutual acquaintance put Segal and Elinav in touch with each other, and together they embarked on the collaboration that eventually morphed into the personalized nutrition project.

One factor that facilitated their research was that rapid, reliable, and minimally-invasive blood glucose monitoring technology has become relatively inexpensive. And here some of their first surprises came. Anybody who has followed a Gary Taubes-type diet, or who is trying to manage diabetes, is aware of the ‘glycemic index’ (GI) of foods—the increase in blood sugar levels caused by eating a given amount of the food, compared to the same amount of pure glucose (for which GI=100 by definition). But how uniform are these values really?

Segal and Elinav found that the GI for some foods (e.g., bananas) differed very little between their test subjects (say, 60-65), while others (e.g., apples) were all over the place (40-90). Moreover, the variation was not random but correlated with the person.

One would expect glycemic response to go up more or less linearly with the amount of the food consumed was a given. They found that this is indeed true for smaller amounts, but at some point saturation sets in as the body manufactures more insulin, and the glucose response levels off. (This, of course, does not mean you can just eat ten times as much: the insulin will cause the excess energy to be stored as fat!)

More surprising, however, was that higher fat content in the meal on average caused a minor decrease in glycemic response. For a nontrivial number of their participants, eating toast with butter or olive oil actually did less glycemic harm than eating the toast on its own.

Now trying to keep blood sugar levels on a more even keel has two major benefits. In the short term, yo-yoing blood sugar levels lead to a reduction in energy, a feeling of exhaustion as the body pumps out insulin in response to a sugar spike and blood sugar dips. As for the long term: Segal and Elinav found across their sample that glycemic response after habitual meals is strongly correlated with BMI. Keeping blood sugar levels on a more even keel turns out to be a win-win on all counts.

And here’s the catch—”thanks” to our microbiome, glycemic response is highly individual. Segal himself ‘spikes’ after eating rice, while Elinav does not. One person spikes after ice cream, while another does not—and the same person who spikes after an evening snack of ice cream can safely have chocolate instead, go figure.

This addresses a seeming paradox. It’s not that diets don’t work—in fact, many do for some people, though long-term compliance can be an issue—it’s that there is no diet that will work for everyone, or even for most people.

So the next step, then, was to have a computer analyze the data for some of the participants in depth, and have it plan out a personalized diet that would keep blood sugar levels as steady as possible for that patient. Guess what? Yup, you guessed it.

Now some people might be discouraged by the idea of carrying around a blood sugar monitor for two weeks and carefully logging every meal (and physical activity). But once a large enough dataset has been established, and correlated to analyses of the gut flora composition in all the test persons, it becomes possible to predict glycemic responses to different foods with reasonable accuracy based on a bacterial population analysis of stool samples. A startup company named DayTwo is offering to do exactly that. [Full disclosure: I have no financial interest in DayTwo or in any of Drs. Segal and Elinav’s ventures.]

We are at the dawn of a major revolution in healthcare—a shift away from a paradigm of statistical averages to one of detailed monitoring of individual patients. Call it ‘personalized medicine’ or any other buzzword: it does seem poised to radically change healthcare and individual health outcomes for the better.


Power distance in the cultural clusters model

I blogged yesterday about David Livermore’s ten cultural clusters and the dimensions used for the “cluster analysis”.

Mrs. Arbel raised an eyebrow about the concept of “power distance”(PD). In his model, a culture with low PD is one with little hierarchy, where people at all levels are involved in decision making, and where there is little social distance.

That Latin American and Arab cultures have very high power distance comes as little surprise. That Nordic culture with its aggressive egalitarianism — “Jante law” (basically: don’t think you’re better than us and don’t make yourself out to be) — would qualify at the other extreme comes as little surprise either.

But Anglo culture? Sure, the USA, Canada, and Australia have a strong egalitarian streak in different ways — but old-school Britain was notoriously class-conscious, and to some degree still is. (In fact, I have argued that in recent years we’re seeing the emergence of a caste system in the USA itself, and that Trumpian populism is to some degree a reaction against a Brahmandarin [sic] elite perceived to be as overbearing as it is incompetent.)

Or how does Germany fit into low power distance? In old-school Germany, titles were almost sacred — to this day, I get addressed as “Herr Doktor” when I travel there on business, except by people with whom I am on a first-name basis, or as they say there “wir dutzen uns” (i.e., we use the informal second person form “du” to address each other rather than the formal “Sie” – like “se tutoyer” In French.) And let’s not even get into high military rank or the German word “Kadavergehorsam” (Freely: blind obedience to orders) — even as this is something of a caricature, as any serious student of military history knows.

Tellingly, however, the respect accorded credentials and rank goes together with a distaste for ostentation on the part of the credentialed and ranking. Salary gaps will be comparatively small, and even very senior officials will live comparatively modest lifestyles. And merely being born in the right family does not get you very far, unlike in Latin America, say. (Historically, there was of course the hereditary nobility, whose privileges were formally abolished under the Weimar Republic. But even they were expected to pull their weight, e.g., in the military.)

And what about Latin-European society, which is ranked as having “moderate power distance”? Livermore classifies both France and Israel as Latin-European, but while credentials do grant you deference in France, Israelis will address almost anyone by their first names by default — pupils will address school teachers thus, and even senior professors will be addressed as “Chaim” or even a nickname, rather than “Dr. Yankel” or “Prof. Yankel”. Ordinary citizens will think nothing of accosting even government ministers and speaking their minds to them. In fact, it is hard to think of a society with less power distance than Israel! — and it is an outlier in other ways as well, in particular being much less risk-averse than the rest of the Latin-European cluster. (Can you imagine Portugal or Belgium as “Startup Nation”? Yeah, right.)

In a sense, German society’s low power distance expresses itself in a way that’s orthogonal to how that goes in some parts of the USA. Americans (outside the Scandinavian-influenced parts of the Midwest) are fairly tolerant of garish and ostentatious lifestyles than Germans or especially Scandinavians, but generally not of standoffish behavior — I have heard more than one European express irritation at “phoney informality” on the part of Americans. As Israel grows more prosperous, I see it evolve more in the US than in the European direction of low power distance.

As ever with human relations, one can reduce a complex reality to a model that is simple, elegant, and has significant predictive power — but one needs to be aware of its limitations. A model is not a theory – “Ceci n’est pas une réalité”

Intercultural communication and the ten cultural clusters

Editor and college lecturer Matthew Bowman drew our attention to the work of David Livermore on intercultural communication, specifically this online course.

Matt was speaking primarily in terms of an application Dr. Livermore surely had not thought of — creating realistic characters in fiction.

Building on earlier work by, e.g., Simcha Ronen and Oded Shenkar, Livermore considers the following ten “cultural value dimensions”:

  1. Identity: Individualist vs. Collectivist
  2. Authority: Low vs. high “power distance”
  3. Risk: Low vs. high “uncertainty avoidance”/risk averseness
  4. Achievement: cooperative vs. competitive
  5. Time orientation: short-term vs. long-term
  6. Communication: direct/explicit vs. indirect/contextual
  7. Lifestyle: being vs. doing
  8. Attitude to rules: universalist vs. particularist
  9. Expressiveness: affective vs. neutral
  10. Social norms: tight vs. loose


According to these dimensions, the cultures of the world mostly cluster into the following groups:
  1. Nordic European (Scandinavia)
  2. Anglo (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand,…)
  3. Germanic (including Switzerland, and with the Netherlands as a semi-outlier)
  4. Eastern European & Central Asian
  5. Latin European: not just the “vulgar Latin”-speaking countries, but also Belgium (including its Dutch-speaking northern half, Flanders) and… Israel
  6. Latin American
  7. Confucian Asian (primarily CJK=China-Japan-Korea)
  8. South Asian (Indian subcontinent plus SE Asia)
  9. Sub-Saharan Africa
  10. Arab world

For instance, he describes Germanic culture as follows (in a sample chapter of one of his books):

  • individual goals are important, but not as paramount as in Anglo culture. [There is, however, the inconvenient truth that Germany gave birth to not just one but two forms of totalitarian collectivism.]
  • power distance is small. Even the most powerful officials lead fairly modest personal lives. Consider Angela Merkel — whatever you may think of her politics — and her husband, a chemistry professor who flies budget airlines to join her on vacations.
  • Germanic societies are definitely competitive
  • Punctuality is demanded and respected. Until digital watches came along, these cultures were literally watchmakers to the world.
  • “Ordnung muss sein” (there must be order/rules) is a prevailing norm, though the Netherlands is the more liberal odd duck in the gaggle
  • Directness in communication is valued. Expressions like “To explain something in good German” (auf gutes Deutsch) and “to make something Dutch to somebody” (iemand iets Diets maken) speak for themselves. [“Diets” is an archaic word for the Dutch language, which presently calls itself “Nederlands”.]
  • Getting things done is definitely high on the list of priorities, particularly in Germany and Switzerland.

There is variability within the cluster, of course: Austrians are much less punctual than the Swiss, and the Dutch even more direct than the others.


The inclusion of Israel with the Latin-European cluster may seem counterintuitive, but it does ring true to this blogger, who substantially grew up in Europe and presently lives in Israel. Again, there is intra-cluster variability, for example between the notoriously risk-averse Belgians and the Israeli “start-up nation”, or between the “dugri” [blunt, no beating around the bush] ways of Israelis and the more suave ways of some Latin countries — but I know from experience that of all the major immigrant groups to Israel, the French have much less of a culture shock than, say, Americans or Russians.

One must keep the limitations of this model in mind — it is a model, after all, not a theory—but it does offer a useful framework for making head or tail of the different cultures in the world.

Meeting of the spirits


By accident, I stumbled on the YouTube channel “Fredneck” of the guitarist of a fusion jazz cover band named General Zod. In the following video, they offer a worthy tribute to one of my all-time classics in the genre, “Meeting of the Spirits” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The intro (which is a bit distorted on my CD of the original) begins with a rather strange chord progression based on minor-major chords: C#add#9 — Dadd#9/C# — C#add#9 (another voicing) — Cmadd#9/B — C#9#11/G — F/E — G/F — G/A — F/G.

The main section is a modal 6:4 jam in the F# Phrygian mode (i.e. the 3rd mode of the D major scale). The riff is a based on arpeggiating a mutant version of the familiar Phrygian i-IImaj7 progression: F#m is “jazzed up” to F#b9 without the 3rd (the individual notes are F#2 F#3 C#4 G3 E4) and Gmaj7 is spiced up to. Gmaj7b5add6 (individual notes G2 F#3 C#4 B3 E4). In a 6:4 meter, the arpeggiation follows a 5-5-2 pattern. The repeated riff is most easily played using the thumb to fret the bass note.

The “spirits” that meet are guitar, keys, and violin. I literally never tire of this progression for jamming over. Enjoy!



Of art, craft, and acquired tastes

A friend who is an art historian lamented that even his most attentive students could not share his enthusiasm for modern art and that even those who understand the context in which it arose still dislike it.

One of the issues I have with much of what passes for modern “art” is that it is 99% concept (the more pretentious and preachy, the better) and 1% about execution. I am reminded of how in Dutch, “kunst” (art) comes from the same root as “kunde” (ability, skill, knowledge). It’s hard to see any “kunde” in making cans labeled “Merde d’Artiste” [sh-t of artist/sh-tty artist] (Piero Manzoni); in displaying one’s unmade bed as an art installation; dripping paint on a canvas (Jackson Pollock); making stains of various bodily fluids (Andres Serrano — this work of “art” was used by Metallica for two album covers); and the like. Richard Bledsoe of the Remodern Review has been blogging up a storm about this poseurism, and the neo-figurative “Stuckist”  and “Remodern” movement that arose against this “stuck on stupid”.

What much of modern “art” really amounts to is a rejection of “craft” in favor of “concept”. I cannot help being reminded of a similar trend in literature.

Now you could call me an artistic philistine who is stuck on Renoir, and maybe you have a point — but I’m much more conversant with music than with any visual art, and yet we see something similar there: contemporary classical music has, for the most part, become a sterile exercise in intellectual and ideological peacocking by academic musicians for academic musicians and snobbish hangers-on.

Another friend asked in response whether this was a matter of acquired taste. After all, people who are not chocoholics or wine connoisseurs cannot truly appreciate “the good stuff” for how good it is?

Perhaps, but here’s the thing: even the person who would like the cheap chocolate from the dollar store as well as the rare gourmet stuff still has no trouble recognizing the latter as chocolate — they just would miss the added value. To use a musical analogy: consider listening to a Bach fugue.  Knowing formal counterpoint will make you realize just how much of a genius Bach was to do what he did, but you don’t need to know any music theory to hear it’s music — and if it’s well played, an attentive listener — even without any formal training — will realize it’s a tapestry of independent voices in a harmonious conversation, even if you don’t know any of the “rules of order” that govern it (which is what classical counterpoint really is, a “Roberts’ Rules” for polyphonic music).


Chesterton’s parable of the fence

The British writer G. K. Chesterton is probably best known to the general public as the author of the “Father Brown” series of mysteries. Among English-speaking Catholics, he is also well known as an apologist for their faith. Agree or disagree with his views, friend and foe recognized his intellect.

In one of his apologetic works (“The Thing”, quoted here, and discussed here from a different religious perspective) he coined an interesting parable:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Meaning no disrespect to Chesterton’s splendid prose, allow me to paraphrase and elaborate in plain(er) contemporary English.

Suppose you are walking along a road and see it blocked by a fence. Is your first impulse: “this fence is oppression! We must tear it down!” Chances are you are a left-liberal “progressive” — especially if you flip 180 degrees to “we must keep the fence, and saying otherwise is hate speech!” after being told that the fence was erected by or at the behest of one of your mascot groups.

Is your first impulse rather, on seeing or suspecting that the fence was erected by the state: “down with the state! down with the fence!” Then, if told that the fence was erected because there was a cliff behind it, or quicksand: “it is my dog-given right to drive off a cliff or into quicksand if I choose to do so, and the state has no business making such a fence!” Chances are you’re a doctrinaire big-L Libertarian. (A more sensible libertarian might advocate tearing down the fence but putting up warning signs, saying “proceed at your own risk”.)

Or is your first impulse that the fence is sacred just because it has always been there, and we must not question why? Chances are you are a reactionary.

Or, finally, is your first thought: “Hmm, that fence wasn’t put there overnight by leprechauns. We must find out how that fence came to be and why. It’s quite possible that the fence was built for reasons that are no longer relevant, and that we can safely tear it down; it’s also possible that the fence is still sorely needed. Until we have a straight answer to this question, let’s not mess with it.” That is what it means to be a conservative. Not to be afraid of anything new, not to oppose reform or evolution —  but to go about it cautiously and thoughtfully, and mindful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  A conservative with libertarian sympathies (like myself) may err on the side of allowing people to make their own mistakes rather than “protecting them against themselves” — but still would not tear down the fence unthinkingly. I might be more rash, if I were alone on a desert island. But in the immortal words of John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.




On dieting, weight, and reductionist fallacies


Sandra Aamodt, the former editor of Nature Neuroscience, presents a TED talk where she explains something counterintuitive: not only do most diets fail to achieve permanent weight loss, but in some cases the rebound actually overshoots, and the diet actually causes a weight gain in the long run.

As she describes it: the hypothalamus of the brain acts as a kind of ‘weight thermostat’ (that would be a barostat? :)) that tries to adjust body weight to within about 10-15 lb of a set weight by sending chemical signals that up- or down-regulate appetite, that speed up or slow down metabolism, etc. If weight drops “too” far below the set point, signals to increase food intake are sent out, and if no food intake ensues (because no food is available, or because the person is dieting), then metabolism is slowed down to reduce the base metabolic rate (i.e., the number of calories your body needs to keep basic functions going at rest). Unfortunately, the “set point” can be ratcheted up but not trivially ratcheted down.

People who think it is all about the pounds (or about the BMI) will find this a depressing message. But this is a classic example of the “reductionist fallacy”: weight or BMI are but. one metric of health among many. There are many others that matter, such as percentage muscle mass, blood sugar at rest, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood oxygen levels,… A person who is technically overweight (i.e., BMI between 25 and 30) but eats healthily, exercises at least 3 times a week, does not smoke, and only drinks in moderation actually has a better health prognosis than somebody who has an “ideal” weight (BMI around 20) but smokes and drinks heavily and never does any exercise.

To be sure, she shows that among people who do not have any of these four healthy habits, an obese person (BMI=30 or higher) has seven times the mortality risk of somebody with an ideal BMI=20.oo. However, for those who do observe all four healthy habits, the mortality risks with normal, overweight, and obese patient differ only by statistical uncertainty.

Does that mean that a morbidly obese person who cannot fit in an airplane seat does not need to go on a diet? Of course, it doesn’t — that is a straw man, and “set point” normally don’t go that high unless pushed there by unhealthy habits or regular binge eating.

But somebody who, well, has a naturally zaftig built is probably better off making a fixed habit of exercise, and to eat ‘smart’, than to go on some extreme low-carb diet. (Full disclosure: I do restrict my carbohydrate intake, but not all the way down to “ketogenic”.)

There is an additional factor here: in recent years we are increasingly aware of the role the microbiome (“gut bacteria”) plays in food absorption, and particularly in sugar absorption. For instance, in this very recent paper:

ABSTRACT: Bread is consumed daily by billions of people, yet evidence regarding its clinical effects is contradicting. Here, we performed a randomized crossover trial of two 1-week-long dietary interventions comprising consumption of either traditionally made sourdough- leavened whole-grain bread or industrially made white bread. We found no significant differential effects of bread type on multiple clinical parameters. The gut microbiota composition remained person specific throughout this trial and was generally resilient to the intervention. We demonstrate statistically significant interpersonal variability in the glycemic response to different bread types, suggesting that the lack of phenotypic difference between the bread types stems from a person-specific effect. We further show that the type of bread that induces the lower glycemic response in each person can be predicted based solely on microbiome data prior to the intervention. Together, we present marked personalization in both bread metabolism and the gut microbiome, suggesting that understanding dietary effects requires integration of person-specific factors.


We are only beginning to understand how human digestion, food absorption, metabolism, and the microbiome interact. Eventually, genome analysis combined with microbiomics will bring us into the personalized nutrition era.


UPDATE: from the same team, a 2014 paper showing that artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the microbiome.  NATURE’s editorial summary in lay language:

We have been using non-caloric artificial sweeteners for more than a century. Today the food industry is using them in ever-greater quantities in ‘diet’ foodstuffs and they are recommended for weight loss and for individuals with glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Eran Elinav and colleagues show that consumption of the three most commonly used non-caloric artificial sweeteners saccharin, sucralose and aspartame directly induces a propensity for obesity and glucose intolerance in mice. These effects are mediated by changes in the composition and function of the intestinal microbiota; deleterious metabolic effects can be transferred to germ-free mice by faecal transplantation and can be abrogated by antibiotic treatment. The authors demonstrate that artificial sweeteners can induce dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in healthy human subjects, and suggest that it may be necessary to develop new nutritional strategies tailored to the individual and to variations in the gut microbiota.

New year and Novy God in Israel


I was asked a number of times by FB and IRL friends abroad whether there was any sign of Christmas or (Gregorian) New Year’s celebrations in Israel.

Now while there is a nontrivially large Christian community in Israel, the largest denominations (the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem among the Arabs, and the Russian Orthodox Church among non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU) are both “Old Calendarist” — they use the Julian calendar for religious purposes. (I have blogged previously about how the ancient Roman calendar evolved via the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one that has literally been made an international standard through ISO 8601.) At present, the Julian calendar runs 13 days behind the Gregorian, so Russian Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7. The largest group in Israel to observe December 25 may well be foreign workers (typically in-house caregivers) from the Philippines, who tend to be either Roman Catholic or sometimes Protestant.

However, there is another celebration that one sees on January 1, particularly in cities with a large Russian community: Novy God. Because it often involves accouterments that have become associated with Christmas/Yuletide in the West (such as the red caps and decorated trees, as well as a Ded Moroz/”Father Frost” figure akin to Santa Claus), some Jewish Israelis actually mistake it for a Christmas celebration.

In fact, of course, Novy God (Новый Год) is simply Russian for “New Year”. Tsarist Russia had hung on to the Julian calendar for civil purposes as well: hence the “October Revolution” actually took place on (Gregorian) November 7, 1917. The new regime almost immediately switched to the Gregorian calendar (and skipped the dates February 1-13, 1918 to catch up). Religious celebrations of any kind quickly became suspect (both because of associations with the old regime and because the godless religion of communism does not suffer competitors). However, nostalgia for winter celebrations associated with Christmas remained, and many Russian yuletide traditions were informally transferred to the nearby January 1. This practice acquired some official sanction following a December 28, 1935 op-ed in the Pravda by a party functionary, and in 1947 Novy God was even made a national holiday. [*]

After the fall of communism, the celebration as a generic/nondenominational winter holiday continued—in Russia, the week from Novy God to Russian Orthodox Christmas is now a winter holiday week. In Israel, it is not unusual to see secular Jews of Russian origin mark Novy God, although Orthodox Jews of similar background tend to eschew the celebration, saying Jews already have a winter holiday of their own (Chanukah). There is also something surrealistic about holiday traditions involving snow and frost in Israel’s coastal plain (where one is lucky to see actual snow once in 50 years) — but the same of course applies to Christmas celebrations in the Southern Hemisphere…

Happy New Year! 2017 was the year of Kek, the Egyptian idol of chaos. Will 2018 tell 2017, “Hold my beer”? At any rate, may it be a year of joy, health, and fulfillment for you all. “Praise G-d! The old year is at an end.”

[*] As a footnote: the author of the “New Year trees” letter, Kiev party secretary Pavel Postyshev, is considered one of the architects of the Holodomor/”Harvest of Sorrow” in Ukraine. Hence, Ukrainian nationalists understandably want nothing to do with the celebration. Four years later, Postyshev himself fell prey to the Great Purges—one might see a measure of karmic justice in this.