Posts, Writings, Ramblings and more from Yaakov Menken

The Big Bang Contradicts Physics, not Religion

by Yaakov Menken on October 29, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Pope Francis is in the news today, for having “sided with science” and against creationists — by endorsing the Big Bang Theory. According to these articles, his statement was “revolutionary” and “embraces modern science.”

As far as saying that the universe is billions of years old, or that creatures evolved, this could be true — though even there, he said that it could not have happened without Divine Intervention. When it comes to the Big Bang, however, these articles neatly turn the truth on its head.

Put simply, the Big Bang Theory violates the known laws of physics. This “Big Bang,” a point of energy that formed the universe — from where did it come? How was it formed? How did this energy and matter form, to then explode outwards? There are various conjectures and speculations to explain what might have happened, but what we know about astrophysics and thermodynamics doesn’t involve nothingness exploding into energy and matter.

In fact, the term “Big Bang” was placed upon the theory by a prominent astronomer who, like most of his colleagues, believed in a “steady state” universe with no known beginning. The majority belief in steady state persisted until detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation, a remnant of the Big Bang, proved in 1964 that the universe was expanding from a beginning point.

If anything, Pope Francis merely recognized that physicists have come to agree with the Biblical account. The Big Bang theory was proposed by Monseigneur Georges LeMaitre, a Catholic priest, and in 1951 Pope Pius XII declared it entirely consistent with Catholic belief.

But in actuality, the theory doesn’t belong to Monseigneur LeMaitre, either. The Ramba”n [Nachmanides] on Genesis 1:1 states that the universe began as a single point of pure energy, having the power to form all matter. If one reads it without knowing it’s the Ramba”n, it sounds like a clear lay description of the Big Bang.

Elon Musk Can Sleep Easier

by Yaakov Menken on October 28, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was quoted yesterday comparing artificial intelligence (AI) to “summoning the demon.” “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I would guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and… he’s sure he can control the demon? Didn’t work out.” This is not a new sentiment for Musk, who called AI “more dangerous than nukes” earlier this summer.

Could AI truly be an “existential threat” – could computers, intended to help us, instead make us extinct? In theory, yes. Musk referred to HAL 9000, the sentient computer that murdered the crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as “a puppy dog” compared to what AI could produce. Colossus: The Forbin Project, the 1970 movie about two supercomputers that took over the world (and nuked a city when not obeyed), enslaving mankind for the “good” of mankind, seems more in line with his concerns.

If Musk has erred, it’s not because he has overestimated the power of consciousness. On the contrary, he sells it short, as the field of computer science has since its inception. If AI isn’t as scary as he imagines, it’s not because of what a sentient computer could do, but because it can only happen with a sentient computer.

Professor Alan Turing of Manchester University is often referred to as the “father of the modern computer” without much exaggeration. He and his peers changed our world – but they believed that the field of computer science would progress in a very different way. Whether or not anyone envisioned a global information network, enabling you to read this article on a handheld wireless device, they certainly believed that by the end of the last century, computers themselves would “awaken,” and add information on their own initiative. While the relevant field is usually called artificial intelligence, artificial consciousness is arguably more accurate; the intent was to produce a computer able to demonstrate creativity and innovation.

Turing needed an impartial way to determine if a computer was actually thinking. He proposed, in a 1950 paper, that if a teletype operator were unable to determine after five minutes that the party at the other end was a computer rather than another human being, then the computer would have passed the test. Turing proposed development of a program that would simulate the mind of a child, which would then be “subjected to an appropriate course of education” in order to produce an “adult” brain.

With all the phenomenal developments in the field of computer science, we are but marginally closer — if, indeed, we are closer at all — to developing a “child brain” than we were then. “Eugene Goostman,” recently declared to have passed the Turing Test during a competition at the University of Reading, was simply a chatbot programmed with evasive answers. It presented itself as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy (who spoke English as a third language) not because it possessed the faculties of a young teenager, but to cover for its many errors and fool the assessors. Deceptive programming isn’t the intelligence Turing had in mind.

But “Goostman” was also in no way unique. Since 1990, inventor Hugh Loebner has underwritten an annual Turing contest at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. And every year, all of the contestants are programs intended to fool the judges, and nothing more; the creativity or passion comes not from the silicon, but only from the programmers behind them.

As it turns out, Turing was preceded by over a millenium in determining his standard of human consciousness. The Rabbis of the Talmud stated the following, in Sanhedrin 65b:

Rava made a man. He sent him before Rebbe Zeira. [R. Zeira] spoke to it, but it did not answer. R. Zeira said, “are you from the scholars? Return to your dust!”

What the teacher Rava created was a Golem, an artificial humanoid that certain righteous individuals were purportedly able to create via spiritual powers. Much like a robot, it could obey commands and perform tasks – but it could not engage in conversation. The Maharsha explains why Rava’s Golem was unable to properly answer R. Zeira:

Because [Rava] could not create the power of the soul, which is speech. Because [the Golem] did not have a neshamah [soul], which is the spirit that ascends above, [but] only the life spirit which is also in animals, which descends below, [R. Zeira] said to it, “return to your dust.”

What this Talmudic passage and commentary tell us, then, is that creating an artificial consciousness isn’t nearly as simple as Turing imagined it to be. The Maharsha essentially tells us that intelligent speech is a manifestation of the soul invested in human beings — not something that programmers can simply drum up with several pages of well-written code. When Turing wrote that “presumably the child brain is something like a notebook … rather little mechanism, and lots of blank sheets” — he was making an assumption that, today, seems positively foolish.

Yet without any true progress towards development of artificial thought, many in the research community remain undeterred even today. Ray Kurzweil, now Director of Engineering at Google – and one of the great innovators and thinkers in computer science – predicts we’ll achieve this goal in 15 years, simply because technology progresses exponentially. An article in Princeton Alumni Weekly recently stated, regarding a prominent professor of psychology, that “if the brain is just a data-processing machine, then [Professor Michael] Graziano sees no reason we cannot create computers that are just as conscious as we are.”

That “if,” of course, is simply a restatement of Turing’s invalid assumption. Today’s supercomputers already process information more rapidly than we do, have larger memory banks, and of course have essentially perfect recall. Computers can see well enough to drive vehicles and hear and transcribe speech. But they cannot find meaning in what they see, nor respond as humans do to what they hear.

On the contrary, the failure to produce a semblance of a thinking computer should be causing a lot of second thoughts about the nature of human consciousness itself. We have proven that the brain is not simply a data-processing machine. When our most dedicated thinkers are unable to produce human thought, or even make substantive progress after decades of effort, are we perhaps not fools to imagine it developed by accident?

Come for Shabbos!

by Yaakov Menken on October 8, 2014 at 4:44 pm

One of the themes of the holiday of Sukkos is that we are all bound together. The Torah tells us to take four species: the Esrog, a citrus fruit with a pleasant taste and smell; the Lulav from a Date Palm which produces fruit but is not fragrant; Hadasim, myrtle branches which are aromatic but does not provide edible fruit; and aravos, from the willow, which has neither taste nor smell.

IMG_2693As we discussed last year, the fruit symbolizes the Torah inside a person, while the fragrance represents the Mitzvos, the deeds a person does which affect those around him or her. The four species represent those who have both Torah and good deeds, those who have one but not the other, and even those who have neither.

And what are we told to do? We bind them together! Every Jew is a unique and essential part of our nation.

Two weeks ago I mentioned The Shabbos Project, started in South Africa, in which members of their diverse Jewish community all celebrated one Sabbath together. And this year, they have taken it global, setting the Oct. 24-25 as the special Sabbath — right after Sukkos!

Would you like to join us? Here in Baltimore, a number of local organizations are working together to pair host families with Jewish individuals, couples and families which may never have taken part in a traditional Shabbos, much less attempted to do it themselves. Rather than try to make Shabbos “from scratch” that weekend, why not join us? We’re planning a special program with prayers, classes, and of course lots of delicious food and good company. Jewish men and women of all ages are invited!

If you’d like to join us, please send an email to office -at- torah.org and baltimore -at- theshabbosproject.com so that we can match you with a host family. And if you’re too far away to join us, please see http://www.theshabbosproject.org/our-partners/ to contact resources in a city closer to you!

Wishing you a wonderful holiday and of course a Good Shabbos!

The “Shabbos App” is a Farce

by Yaakov Menken on October 7, 2014 at 12:11 am

It is true that the “Shabbos App” has attracted a great deal of attention and discussion. Personally, I am waiting for the prankster to come forward and explain that this was all designed to make Orthodox Jews look bad by demonstrating their focus on … what, precisely, I’m not sure. Probably that we care about Shabbos at all, and are distressed by those teens in many communities who are unable to set aside their phones when required by Halacha. But we’ll get to that eventually. The simple fact of the matter is that this whole thing is a farce, and of course we have yet to see anyone pony up $49.95 to get their (non-working) copy and prove me right or wrong. And I’m pretty sure I’m right. Rabbosai, you’ve all been fooled.

Let’s look at the evidence, which falls into four basic categories: the announcement, the website, the video, and the backers.

The Announcement

  • They claim they’ll release it in February. If it takes that long to build this (which it shouldn’t), there’s no need to start marketing it so far in advance.
  • The promised final version will cost $49.95, which is extraordinarily high for an app, much less one purporting to be a public service (compare to the various apps for Siddurim, Zmanim, collections of Sefarim, and even finding a minyan).
  • As of yesterday, Oct. 5, there’s a “Shabbos App” on Google Play (now that it’s getting so much coverage, they suddenly realized they don’t need until February after all). It “does not function with all features listed,” but it still costs $49.95, enough to dissuade anyone from downloading it to see if it actually does anything at all. [It is trivial to create an expiring preview/trial.] Indeed, no one reports having seen or tried out this app, and Google Play lists the number of downloads as “1-5,” which would of course include the uploader himself.
  • It is called the “Shabbos App.” “Half Shabbat” seems to be more common than “Half Shabbos,” v’hamayvin yavin. Even if you disagree, stay with me.

The Website

  • Its tag line is “Nisht shver tzu zein a Yid,” which, of course, doesn’t speak to the teen observing “Half Shabbat” at all.
  • The site claims the above is its registered mark, ®. It’s hard to imagine registering a Yiddish phrase as distinctly “yours” with the USPTO, as required by law to use the ® symbol, nor does a trademark search turn up any results.
  • The site is not only peppered with Yiddish, foreign to most of those afflicted with “Half Shabbat,” but refers to “Toirah,” a spelling that is the exclusive province of those intending to mock or belittle Torah observance and/or observant Jews. [Don't take my word for it.]
  • Ditto: Reboin’eh Shel Oi’lem, Koisaiv, Moichek, Poiskim.
  • “Who We Are” says they are “a team of ehrlich’e yidden.” I’ve said this before: observant Jews don’t call themselves good Jews, or ehrlich’e, or what-have-you that implies we’re doing what we should. We’ll call someone else ehrlich, but we’re not going to be Azei Panim [brazen] and say Tzadikim Anachnu v’lo Chatanu [we are righteous and have not sinned] (cf. Yom Kippur prayers).
  • Then, of course, there’s what the website doesn’t have. While the website claims their app provides “solutions” to the “Halachic issues,” there is no reference whatsoever to consultation with any Halachic authority from any circle. There are no approbations. There is no Rav anywhere who claims to have been consulted about this purported “solution” for frum Jews, much less to having agreed with any of its claims.

The Video

  • As a PR vehicle it is ludicrous, with needless repitition, and of course a hand writing most every word in the narration.
  • The frum community has any number of professional-quality radio / narration voices. Both narrators in this video have what could only be described as an exaggerated inability to pronounce basic terms, such as “Shabbos.”
  • In one panel, the male narrator mispronounces “Sha-bohs” with a hard o (as in the word “oh”) and in the next pronounces it more or less correctly (as pronounced, it sounds like “Shabbus”), but then he combines it with “Meh-NOO-Kah”
  • There are no real “interviews,” merely the narrators offering up poor imitations of Chassidic and Litvish accents.
  • In general, the narration is so stiff that one comment suggested these were computer voices. Listening carefully to the word emphasis, it’s clear that the narrators are, in fact, human — just (deliberately?) incapable of pronouncing the words correctly.
  • As compared to the narration, the text itself, like the website, exhibits intimate knowledge of things like a Chassid going to tisch and a Litvak (in a Fedora) reaching his chavrusa — and even referencing the Chazon Ish as a Da’as Yachid. Anyone able to write such narration would certainly have recognized that a pair of gentile announcers were not appropriate for the material or audience.
  • One of the so-called “interviews” claims that the Rabbis who would assur the “Shabbos app” are “party poopers” who should “get a life.” Another claims that the Rabbis who would ban this App will “look stupid” as did those who stopped the “Big Event” with Lipa. [Of course, Lipa post that controversy is no longer known for "pushing the boundaries" of Jewish music, teaching Chassidic youth non-Jewish rock tunes as he did before, meaning that he respected the Rabbonim much more than the authors of this video.]

The Backers

  • YidTec is supposed to be a frum outfit in Wilmington, DE. Anyone heard of them? Right.
  • That’s because in actuality, YidTec isn’t in Wilmington at all. In articles it claims the firm is in California. But it was incorporated by The Company Corporation in Delaware, today, October 6.
  • The Facebook page for the Shabbos App (which has been around since September 22, several weeks longer than YidTec has been a company), as well as the Google Play page, both claim that the physical address of YidTec is that of Delaware Business Incorporators, a competitor of the Company Corporation.
  • The Facebook page “Ban the Shabbos App” was created on October 1, to claim the Shabbos App is “worse than 1000 Holocausts” [sic]. It uses similar Hebrew spellings (“oi”) to those I pointed out on shabbosapp.com, criticizes the Gedolim for not banning the app (yet), and refers to Rav Adlerstein’s post earlier today as a “softie half-hearted ban-free screed about the Destroy-Shabbos App.”
  • The Kickstarter Facebook link doesn’t go to the page of YidTec or the Shabbos App, but of Yitz Appel, who doesn’t look overtly frum and has a very sparse presence, especially for someone claiming to be an App developer.
  • Yitz Appel with the same photo seems to have a similarly minimal and protected presence on Instagram, Houzz.com, and on Meetup.com as a member of Young Jewish Professionals of Santa Monica, CA. Nothing indicates any serious involvement with either Judaism or app development.
  • The other developer quoted in articles about this App, “Yossi Goldstein” from Colorado, is found only in these articles.

Oh, and last but not least, the app claims it will avoid problems of heating the phone due to overuse, by constantly consuming power, causing the battery to constantly be hot. In other words, the app offers to deliberately roast your phone.

To me, this builds an overwhelming case. I do not believe this is offered with serious intent at all, but rather to mock attempts by serious, committed Jews to face the new challenges presented by modern technology. As Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato wrote in Mesilas Yesharim, mockery is a tremendously destructive force, to the point that trying to reason with or guide a mocker is like trying to teach a drunk or one who is mentally ill. And I suspect that a psychologist would have a field day trying to understand the motives of the author of this scam, and trying to cure him of his underlying issues.

Reset Button

by Yaakov Menken on October 2, 2014 at 10:22 pm

On Yom Kippur, we are invited to “clean the slate” of all the misdeeds of the past year.

In a way, it’s like hitting the reset button.

reset_button-scaled500When we restart our computer, all of the old programs that were sitting there, using memory and slowing down the machine, are cleared away. This is the time of year when we’re granted a special opportunity to reboot our lives, to start over without the baggage of bad habits. It’s a time to examine which of our “running programs” are positive, and which are simply slowing us down.

It’s also a time when we have a clear connection, when G-d declares that His Presence is especially close to us, to help us to move forward.

I hesitate to add this, or name the Rabbi who came up with it, but it’s a great time to get rid of “a virus.” [Aveyros are sins, and if pronounced like someone from the Hungarian or Galician Jewish community, it comes out ahvayris.]

So it’s important to not simply go to synagogue tomorrow… but to take stock of our lives. After a system restart, a computer runs faster and cleaner, and is more productive. Yom Kippur gives us a special, once-a-year opportunity to restart how we live, in much the same way.

Every Step Up

by Yaakov Menken on September 12, 2014 at 11:56 am

stair_stepsThis week, the Torah makes us uncomfortable. It tells us something that we don’t want to hear: that there are harsh consequences if we turn away from G-d and His Torah. We are His nation, and our lives and successes depend upon remembering this. The Ohr HaChaim reminds us that we’ve heard this before, in the Torah portion Bechukosai at the end of Leviticus. Why does the Torah repeats the curses, at double the length — and, unlike the first time, not follow with words of consolation?

He explains that the first set speaks to us as a nation, in the plural, leaving open the possibility that we might get the wrong idea: as long as part of Israel is doing the right thing, perhaps HaShem won’t be concerned about those doing evil. Thus the second set speaks to us as individuals — and, of course, the Torah cannot guarantee that every individual will experience, in this world, the consolation of Israel that follows. The Torah reminds us once again that every individual Jew is part of the entire nation, and we are all responsible for each other.

Recently, two Rabbis wrote op-eds debating the importance of intent versus practice. The first Rabbi argued that a person on a path of growth is “on the spiritual scale, light years beyond those who go through the motions.” The second countered that “putting too much emphasis on intention… [can] mislead people into thinking that the intent is equal to, or even more important than, the act itself.”

They are both right.

It is obvious that both the one who is filled with spiritual feelings of closeness to God yet does not act upon them, and the one who performs the Commandments but without feeling or devotion, suffers from a profound lack. Both of these things must travel together.

At the same time, however, we cannot minimize the accomplishment of being “halfway there.” The first Rabbi wrote his reflections after speaking with a woman who felt tremendous spiritual motivation, yet felt that a particular area of Jewish practice (which he left unspecified) so intimidating that she felt unable to move forward. And she felt unable to do even that with which she was fully comfortable, because of the philosophical hurdle she had yet to overcome. And on the other side, those who lack inspiration inevitably feel their observance falling away, because doing a ritual without feeling can leave a person simply feeling worse than before.

In both cases, a person’s bad inclination is trying to convince him or her not to do the right thing. Every single positive step has tremendous value, and that includes both the person who prays with sincerity but does not fully observe, and the person who observes everything but lacks emotion. Focusing upon the negative simply leads a person to a feeling of hopelessness, while placing our attention upon the positive leads us to aim higher in the future.

When I founded Project Genesis over two decades ago, I recall speaking to a Rabbi who was and remains one of the leading figures in Jewish outreach. Unlike many others, he was not enthusiastic. He said to me: “the goal of Jewish outreach is to help an uninformed Jewish person go from 0 to 1000. What you are doing can only help a person from 0 to 1!”

The years that followed proved him mistaken, in that many people found their Jewish lives tremendously enriched even if their sole source of inspiration came via the Internet. [Many of you have shared stories with us; I hope that if you are reading this and have a story of your own growth through Torah.org and other programs, that you will send it to us, either privately or in the comments.] But that was not why he told me, nearly a decade later, that he had changed his mind. Rather, it was the realization that one is infinitely greater than zero.

Every step up has tremendous value, and must inspire us to continue to grow in both spirituality and practice, every day of our lives.

Chain of Events

by Yaakov Menken on September 5, 2014 at 12:25 pm

futureThe Torah reading begins this week with three seemingly unrelated laws. First it teaches us how an Israelite soldier must conduct himself if, in the course of capturing a city, he is attracted to a captive woman. Then it explains the laws of inheritance if a man has two wives, and would like to give preference to the eldest son of the wife he loves, although that son is younger than his true firstborn, who comes from a wife he dislikes. And finally, the Torah tells us about the wayward son, who sets himself on a path of evil.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki shows us that the Torah is teaching a profound lesson here. First of all, recognizing human nature, the Torah does not offer a blanket prohibition against marrying a captive. The morally reprehensible conduct of most victorious armies is, of course, prohibited — even if a woman beautifies herself in the hopes of winning a soldier, which was apparently not uncommon. Rather, the Torah demands that she be brought to his home, that her fine clothing and jewelry be exchanged for garments of mourning, and that she cry for her lost family. Rashi explains that the Torah is ensuring that the heat of the moment passes, and she appears in ugly clothes without makeup, the soldier has an opportunity to reconsider his rash interest.

And if he does go ahead and marry her anyways, Rashi adds, that is how he is going to end up with a wife that he dislikes. And that, in turn, is how he is going to find himself with a son committed to wayward behavior.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin says (with one dissenting opinion) that the laws of the wayward son are so intricate and difficult that they were never actually carried out. The Torah made it impossible, practically, for a young man to be punished with death for having disobeyed and stolen (specifically meat and wine). If so, what was the purpose of telling us a Commandment that was never applicable? The sole purpose of this passage, then, is the moral lesson to be derived from it.

The Torah does not tell us in every case that a behavior is prohibited. Human beings have different needs, and what may be appropriate and even beneficial for the spiritual growth of one person may be detrimental to another. Each individual must have the opportunity to choose the good, facing an inclination that wants to fool him or her into thinking that any permitted action will lead to a positive end. As we know, the world doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes, two people can ask a Rabbi a what appears to be the same question, and receive very different answers. This often has to do with the circumstances surrounding the question. It’s acceptable to eat kosher fruit off a nonkosher plate, if invited to a dinner where it would seem impolite not to eat anything at all. Does that mean it’s a good idea to keep nonkosher plates in your house, to use only for cold items? Of course not.

One must look down the road at the likely results of his or her actions: “who is wise? The one who perceives the future” [Talmud Tamid 32a, see also Rebbe Shimon in Chapters of the Fathers 2:13]. The Torah is warning us that you can’t simply look at the list of Commandments and say “it’s not forbidden, so it’s okay.” Nothing is so simple. The Torah is trying to set each person on a path of individual growth, and one must, with guidance, look to the future and choose the path that will lead to greater heights.