Thursday, February 27, 2014

Neat Book Review #11 Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton

Plot summary
The book describes the creation of Twitter up to June of 2012, primarily through the eyes of the four founders and the relations between them. The book begins by providing a short biography of each founder separately and then follows, more a less, a straight timeline of events. However this timeline is separated into sections, each of which is dedicated to the founder that was dominant in that specific period of time. The final section is dedicated to Dick Costello, who was not a founder but at the time of writing became the CEO of the company after ousting the very person who brought him on board – his friend and founder, Evan Williams. The book does not go into the technical details of the development of Twitter but, rather, chooses to focus on the interpersonal relationships among the founders, which were, it turns out, quite vicious: we learn about their loves, hates and rivalries and especially the incessant lying and backstabbing and all around selfishness and emotional ineptness of all parties involved. Jack Dorsey, the current executive chairman of Twitter  is portrayed as  the very worst of the lot, a constantly scheming scoundrel and congenital liar, while Evan Williams appears as a relatively good guy, but one who experienced grave difficulties in transitioning from head of a start-up to CEO of a billion dollar company and in the process is victimized by the very people he helped, befriended, pitied, and trusted.

My opinion
The book is well-written and easy to read. However, it is focused mostly on personal relationships and not on the substance of Twitter: its technical, financial, or even managerial operation. By choosing this focus, the author misses the opportunity to provide insight into the process of  establishing a start-up and turning it into a billion dollar business and instead opts to document what appears to have been a juvenile high-tech soap opera.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Best Way To Be A Slave, According To Rabbi Judah HaLevi

The servants of time are slaves of slaves

Ever since I had the opportunity to decide for myself what I wanted to do with my life, I've been walking to the beat of my own drum. This means that I've always been out of step with the rest of society, including my former, conformist friends and family. Of course that is not an easy position to be in, but sometimes being alone is a necessary step in discovering who you really are.

Along the way I came across this beautiful poem by the medieval Jewish poet, Rabbi Judah HaLevi (1075 – 1141), and I took great comfort in it. To this day I have these two (first) verses glued to a small whiteboard by my desk. So for those who have been destined to walk a lonely road, here are some words of consolation: You are serving the only Master worthy of your time.

I made an English version (above) and a Hebrew one (both with PicMonkey), and they are both available along with the rest of the poem after the jump. Please feel free to download and share!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Neat Book Review #10 The History of Christianity by Paul Johnson

cover photo The History of Christianity by Paul Johnson

Plot summary
This book discusses the history of Christianity from its origins in Jesus's times up to 1975.The book is divided into eight parts, all of which follow the historical timeline except for the seventh section, which suddenly goes back a bit to discuss a separate issue: the idea of Christians as being "chosen", which deals with the founding of America and with missionary work and its complex relationship with colonialism. The book provides a very broad overview of the main issues that gave rise to Christianity and its consolidation; its role in preserving Roman culture; the uneasy alliance between the Church and the secular sovereigns, culminating in the shameful capitulation of the Church and its adherents to Hitler (a situation that Johnson describes in detail); the Reformation; the various effects of modernity on faith and the Church and the eventual decline of both.

My opinion
I wanted to read this book in order to get a better grasp of the origins of Western culture and the forces that shaped it, and in this respect I got what I wished for and then some. It took me months to read this 550-page-long book, because  the author really weaves everything into a great, meaningful, and very thought-provoking story. In other words, it is far from being just a dull recitation of events and dates. I can honestly say that I enjoyed nearly every minute reading this book, until I reached the final two sections. The sudden shift backwards in time to discuss Christian colonialism seemed out of place to me, and the final section was too close to modern times for me to find it interesting. It is also important to note that despite the title, it is a history of Western Christianity - the Eastern Church is barely mentioned - and that Johnson does not explain the background of the events. For instance, he will mention the Treaty of Westphalia but not explain its nature. Thus, some knowledge of European history is necessary to understand the book, or at least a willingness to do some research on your own when necessary. Another point of difficulty for me was my inability to understand issues that caused such an uproar in the Christian world, such as the nature of the Godhead (I simply could not fathom the Chalcedonian formula). This is not because the author does not explain them, because he does, but rather due to my being completely unfamiliar with this kind of thinking.

Pros: A very well written, thoughtful, and relatively short and comprehensive overview of the annals of the Western Church.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

America - The Erasmian Dream

With the help of the internet and Google+ communities, I keep track of what is going on in America both culturally and politically, even though I don't live there. I've had a feeling, for years now, that America is important not just because of its material influence but for the values its represents (or represented...), but I never really articulated to myself what exactly makes America special and important. So imagine my delight when, while reading the History of Christianity, Paul Johnson says the following when describing the founding of America:
Thus for the first time since the Dark Ages, a society came into existence in which institutional Christianity was associated with progress and freedom rather than against them. The United States was Erasmian in its tolerance, Erasmian in its anti-doctrinal animus, above all Erasmian in its desire to explore, within a Christian context, the uttermost limits of human possibilities. It was Christianity presented not as a total society but as an unlimited society.
Erasmus was a Renaissance humanist, reformer, and avid proponent of individual freedom. Here is a lengthy post about Erasmus the humanist and author, based on the same book, the History of Christianity.

Anyway, America was and remains the world's best and greatest experiment in human freedom based on individual faith. The results of that experiment are, to date, quite incredible, and it is hard to imagine a world without American ingenuity, enterprise, and creativity. Therefore the incessant attacks on the very essence of the United States, from within and from without, should be of great concern to all those who value freedom, all over the world. I know I certainly am concerned and now I understand exactly why: I want to keep the light(s) on.

Related posts:

Desiderius Erasmus: Reformer, Humanist, And The World's First Best-Selling Author

 Christianity - A Force For Civilization?
 Should You Adhere to Faith or Reason? Why not Both?

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

History Lesson: The Worst Enemy Of The Jewish People Is...The Jewish People

Quote from Isaiah 49:17 The destroyers

I finished reading "The History of Christianity" a few days ago, and here I want to discuss an issue that appeared in the beginning of the book, where Johnson describes things about Jewish history that I do not recall learning in high school (I swear I was paying attention). In any case, I've realized for some time now that my people are pretty meshuganeh, and I've always thought that this was because of our 2000-year long tour of developing countries in the Diaspora or because of the trauma of the Holocaust. But reading this book I've realized that our issues aren't a recent development. No, this has always been the case: The Jewish people were always this screwed up.

Let me start with a revealing quote from the very beginning of the book, where Johnson is describing the general background in which Jesus was born, raised, and preached:
The Jews then were unanimous in seeing history as a reflection of God's activity...and since the Jews could not agree on how to interpret their past or how to prepare for the future, they tended to be equally divided on what they should do at present.
"The Jews could not agree" - are you kidding me? This sentence could be written about any time in Jewish history and it would be correct, including today. There is a well-known saying about Jews that goes "For every two Jews, there are three opinions". Here is a nice anecdote about that, from Aish:
 As a matter of fact, we were once in Phoenix, Arizona, and a teacher said, “You know how it is - two Jews, three opinions…,” when a gentleman raises his hand and, in all seriousness, says, “Rabbi, I heard it was three Jews, four opinions.” The teacher looked at him and said, “Thank you, Sir. You’ve just proved my point!”
Sigh. I don't why this is so, but it's true even in the Bible (take a look at The Book of Judges, for instance). Perhaps we were Chosen To Argue?

Anyway, Johnson goes on to explain that "Granted a stable political  framework, the Jewish potential was enormous," but unfortunately, "The Jews could not provide stability for themselves and the Romans did not find it easy either..." So as a nation, we've always had difficulty in governing ourselves. I guess it's comforting to know that our troubles do not stem specifically from our present context, but on the other hand, its pretty terrible that we've learned nothing about ourselves in two thousand years (Has it really been that long? My, how time flies...)

Johnson also describes an enormous Jewish diaspora at the time:
There was always a huge Jewish Diaspora, especially in the great cities of the Eastern Mediterranean: Alexandria, Antioch, Tarsus, Ephseus, and so forth. Rome itself had a large Jewish colony...They could, when they chose, play a leading role in municipal politics, especially in Egypt, where they were a million strong.
So let me get this straight: the Jewish people had sovereignty and a huge temple, which was a major tourist attraction for the entire Roman Empire, but millions of Jews still chose to live abroad even though they could not properly practice their faith there and even though living in the holy land of Israel is an important commandment?? I read this and said to myself: "What the heck is wrong with these people?" I believe there are two possible answers to this question: (1) We inherited a terrible wanderlust from Abraham our father and, like bored, hyperactive children, we simply cannot sit still in the Promised Land, or else (2) We are incorrigible perfectionists so that whatever we have is never enough. I vote for "2" and so does Johnson, He explains that:

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Children's Guide To Hell

Burn in Hell by tacit requiem (joanneQEscober )

I don't normally dwell on the subject of Hell; I prefer the Zen attitude of taking care of the present, as a result of which the future - in this life and the next - will take care of itself as a matter of course. But I'm still reading the History of Christianity and it appears that in the 19th century, as rationalism and science progressed, there was a large amount of backlash from the public and parts of the elite, who feared for the integrity of society and yearned for better days (the Middle Ages, no less) in which a stronger authority (the Pope, the state) could enforce its beliefs on the public. One of the results of this upsurge in Christian belief was a return to the subject of Hell, which was seen as the only way to instill fear and obedience into an unruly public (the kind of public that was responsible for the French revolution and the Spring of Nations in 1848). Johnson quotes from several volumes on the subject, one of which especially caught my attention and which I was able to find (and download) online: "The Sight of Hell" by Rev. J. Furniss and published in Dublin in the year 1874:

Since I grew up in a secular environment and Hell (and God) were, at most, childish myths, I was curious to see how a 19th century author describes Hell to children. So I read this short pamphlet and here is what I learned, complete with the proper quotes. If you had any doubts about where Hell is, what it looks like, and what happens to naughty children who go there, allow the Reverend to erase them from your mind:

We begin with the question "Where is hell?" The answer is obvious, to this author:
Every little child knows that God will reward the good in Heaven and punish the wicked in Hell. Where, then, is Hell? Is Hell above or below? Is it on the earth, or in the earth, or below the earth? It seems likely that Hell is in the middle of the earth. Almighty God has said that "He will turn the wicked into the bowels of the earth" — Ecclus. xvii.
Later the author informs us as to the exact location:

Friday, February 14, 2014

Facebook: You Can Check Out Anytime You Like But You Can Never Leave...

Like I've noted before, I've never been a big Facebook fan, taking an instant dislike to the site the moment I set eyes on it. Nevertheless, I established an author site just so people would have another way to connect with me - after all, there are about a billion Facebook users. I only posted links there and did not interact at all, since that is almost impossible to do as a business page and anyway, in the meantime I discovered the delights of Googleplus.

It appears though, that even this tenuous relationship with the Blue Bully (that's my new name for Facebook) was too much. I've been locked out of my account for the past month since: "someone has accessed my account from a different location". In order to claim ownership I have to provide my birthday. Of course I can still remember my own birthday; I'm not senile, yet. But when signing up I provided a fake b-day, never knowing that I'll need it someday. All I was thinking at the time was: "Why the heck does Facebook need to know when I was born?" In a way, it's my fault and my lesson from this is: before you sign up to anything, make sure you keep all the information you need to recover your account if something happens. My other lesson is: Facebook and I, it just wasn't meant to be. This reminds me of a telling incident involving Mark Zuckerberg, related in a book I recently read, "Hatching Twitter":

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Most Interesting Jew In The World - A New Meme

the most interesting Jew in the world meme kvelling

If you've been following me on Google+ , you know that I've been obsessing about memes lately. In fact, I just wrote an informative post about the subject Memes: How To Make Them, Their Cultural Significance, And How They Can Be Used To Market eBooks. Today, I'm taking it a step further: I'm creating a new meme. I got the idea  of putting a kippah on the head of the most interesting man in the world, and from there things just went downhill...
So here a few Jewish-themed memes, based on "the most interesting Jew in the world meme", for your enjoyment. Please share if you liked them. They are all available on Pinterest, if you prefer sharing that way. If you have any ideas that you would like to see in this meme you can create them yourself at Memegenerator. If you do make new ones, I'd appreciate it if you shared the link in the comments.

Here's one relating to the everyday life of practicing Jews:

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Is There Hope For Humanity?

When I see all the amazing technological advances that we are experiencing, alongside the seemingly never-ending violence and abuse that we continue to inflict on our fellow men and our environment, I can't help but think things like this:

The human mind can solve any problem except for itself

Actually, though, I don't really think this is true; I believe that eventually we'll solve ourselves. I'm greatly encouraged by the findings in developmental psychology (such as attachment theory) and their application (which I have begun to see in the training of Israeli preschool and kindergarten teachers and in policy discussions), and I think that eventually we'll solve the fundamental problem: How to raise  psychologically healthy human beings. It's just going to take a very long time, longer than our life span. Meanwhile I'll do the best I can, in my own small way, to get society going in the right direction. I hope you do too!

The image Lights of Ideas is provided courtesy of Saad Faruque on a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Christianity - A Force For Civilization?

Congratulations are in order: I finally finished reading "The History of Christianity", which I thoroughly enjoyed, even though it took me a few months.
The quote is from the epilogue in which the author, Paul Johnson, argues that despite all the drawbacks and failures of Christianity throughout the ages, it is still a civilizing force and an important  impetus to human improvement. You can argue about that in the comments :)
Nevertheless the quote itself, I believe, is quite correct: things do tend to go downhill in the absence of faith, so that brute force supplants moral values.
Man is imperfect with god - what is he without god
Neat Book Review #9: All Things Possible by Kurt Warner

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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Why DRM on eBooks Is A Bad Idea

eliminate DRM poster defective by design

If you are thinking about putting DRM on your book, then perhaps you'd like to think again after you see how easy it is to remove. Following the instructions in this post, it took me 20 minutes to install the necessary software (all of which is free) and remove the DRM from an ebook that was offered for free on Amazon just a few weeks ago, just so I could read it on my PDF reader (which is how I'm used to reading on my PC). I have no idea why someone would want to DRM a free ebook; I'm guessing the author simply didn’t notice what he was doing. This was the first time I had to strip DRM from a book and I'm certainly no computer whiz, but nevertheless it was pretty easy and now I can do this for any ebook book I buy or download from Amazon. In short, DRM for books seems pretty useless. The only thing it did was prevent me from reading the ebook the way I'm used to and wasted 30 minutes of my life.

Personally I hate DRM. When I grew up we bought stuff and we owned it and we could share our purchases with our friends, which is how I got to know Asimov and Queen and many others. We are social animals and we must share our experiences with our fellow men and women. I don't understand business models that rely on restricting what I can do with a product I own. For instance, why do I have to watch commercials on DVDs I bought ten years ago, before I get to see the movie? And don't get me started about the ongoing campaign to criminalize ownership and to invade the privacy of every citizen on earth just so some legacy content owners can make an extra buck off the work of content providers they ripped off in the first place, which reminds me: today is a day of protest against mass surveillance and for privacy as a human right. Go and do your part.

What is DRM and why it's important

As for DRM, if you don't know what it is and how it's affecting your life, you can start on the Defective By Design site. This is their brief explanation:
Digital Restrictions Management is technology that controls what you can do with the digital media and devices you own. When a program doesn't let you share a song, read an ebook on another device, or play a game without an internet connection, you are being restricted by DRM. In other words, DRM creates a damaged good. It prevents you from doing what would normally be possible if it wasn't there, and this is creating a dangerous situation for freedom, privacy and censorship

Here is the same idea in graphic form, courtesy of the ever insightful XKCD:

Monday, February 10, 2014

Still Arguing With Your Wife? You May Be Right, But You're Still Wrong

I woke up today with this sentence in my mind, perhaps due to an argument I had with the missus last night, and decided that I have to share.

Being in the relationship is more important than being right

I think it took me about a decade of married life (at least) to really get this. Isn't it odd that for most women this seems to be a completely natural attitude, but some men, or even most of them, never get it, even when their relationships depend on it?

I can say this: In my experience, putting the relationship first means viewing the world in an entirely different way. It's the difference between thinking that the world is flat and suddenly discovering that in reality, it's round. In other words, it's the difference between living in the Dark Ages, and living in the 21st century. I think everyone should try it, because no matter what you give up in the process - and you will give up certain parts of your self-image - you'll be better off and more importantly, so will your wife, your children and thus, by extension, the world.

So on this Valentine's Day, instead of giving the one you love some chocolate, give her something really worthwhile: yourself

You may also be interested in:
Insomnia: 7 Effective, Natural Methods of Coping without Sleeping Pills

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

Follow me on:

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Memes: How To Make Them, Their Cultural Significance, And How They Can Be Used To Market Ebooks

A few weeks ago I discovered how to make memes on Google+, and since then I've been inadvertently sucked into the world of memes until I could barely think of anything else (it's seriously addictive). But today I emerge before you a victorious, if somewhat more weary and wiser man...and I'm here to share my newly acquired wisdom with you. Namely, I will share my favorite meming sites and how to use them, why memimg is a significant cultural phenomenon, and how writers and anyone else can use memes as a cost-effective and fun marketing device. This post is image-based and includes a lot of (funny) memes, so enjoy!

What's in A Meme

I had seen memes before but I had never made one myself and never really thought about them. For starters I used Google to find a site that generate memes, and discovered that there are dozens. I started with the MemeGenerator, which provides numerous meme templates and an easy way to add text to them. The benefit here is that if you go to the characters' page, there are explanations and examples for most of the popular memes. This allowed me to catch on very quickly, so that I was able to produce numerous recaptionings of the "most interesting man in the world" meme, without previously knowing anything about him or the original commercial. Adding text is a cinch and since there no is option for formatting you have nothing to mess up. Here's a screenshot of the meme generating page.

After a choosing a character on the home page or one of the other pages, you just add your text on the right where it says "recaption this image".

Here's the explanation for this meme:

Monday, February 3, 2014

Desiderius Erasmus: Reformer, Humanist, And The World's First Best-Selling Author

Desiderius Erasmus the humanist and best-selling author
Original photograph by André Guelmann at

I'm still reading The History of Christianity and I was completely taken by surprise when the author, Paul Johnson, identified and described the life and work of the world's first best-selling author who was also, it turns out, a first-class humanist. In this post I would like to share with you what I learned about the life and times of a real mensch: Desiderius Erasmus.

The Age of Learning

Erasmus was apparently born in Rotterdam in 1466 to a priest and washerwoman. Of course this was at time when clergy were not permitted to marry, so Erasmus was considered a bastard, a fact that he took care to hide throughout his life. According to Johnson, bastardy was a vast social problem so that "probably half the men in orders had wives and families..clerical celibacy was, in its own way, the biggest single issue of the Reformation." Another problem was that the children of priests really did not have any way of making a living other than taking vows and becoming priests themselves. In this way, Johnson explains, "many thousands of men and women were... sentenced for life to a spiritual role for which they had no calling and - since no seminaries existed - no training." Given this background it is no surprise that the total Catholic medieval society was threatening to crack under the pressure. Another problem was the fact that the printing press was just coming into its own, which coincided with the re-discovery of ancient Greek texts and Hebrew scholarship from Spain. "By 1500," Johnson writes, "there were 73 presses in Italy, 51 in Germany, 39 in France, 24 in Spain..." all churning out books at a breakneck speed. People began to read the ancient scripts for themselves, including original versions of the Bible, which did not agree completely with the Church version (St. Jerome's Vulgate). The feeling among scholars at the time was that the truth had been hidden, and if they studied the newly discovered texts well enough, it would be possible to re-discover the true wisdom of the ages, of which Christianity was the culmination. So it was into this age of learning that Erasmus was born.Unfortunately, he did not have an easy time, at first.

Erasmus goes to school

Even though Erasmus was born into the Age of the New Learning, his education was still all "old learning". Here's how Johnson describes it:
"His schooling was wretched...he was taught as one of 275 boys in one room under a single master and the curriculum was largely confined to thought-conditioning Latin rhymes and sayings such as 'The prelates of the church are the salt of the earth". 
After this, he was lucky enough to snag a position as secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, who sent him to the College de Montaigu in Paris,
"which was known to Parisians as the cleft between the buttocks of mother theology. It was ancient, dilapidated, dank and filthy; the food was revolting, the dormitories stank of urine and there were frequent beatings"  - in other words, it was like junior high school except that - "Erasmus was already 26 and hated it and so did Rabelais, who wanted it burned down. Two other of its alumni, Ignatius Loyola and Jean Calvin admired its austerities and welcomed their time there." 
 Johnson says that "Here we have the one of the great cleavages, between the Humanists and the Puritans". Loyola later founded the Jesuit order, and Calvin of course founded the other branch of the Protestant Reformation, the austere doctrine of Calvinism. Erasmus and Rabelais were both writers and humanists.

Erasmus the Author

According to Johnson, Erasmus' intellectual breakthrough came in 1499, when he was sent to England and heard Colet's lecture on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, in which he endeavored to re-read the text and discover new meaning in it. As a result
Erasmus determined to re-examine the scriptures himself and to learn Greek in order to do so effectively. Erasmus made himself into a scholar with high academic standards; he was also a popularizer and a journalist who understood the importance of communication. He wanted his books to be small, handy and cheap, and he was the first writer to grasp the full potentialities of printing. He worked at speed, often in the printing shop itself...he was exhilarated by the smell of printer's ink, the incense of the Reformation. As a result, the diffusion of his work is astounding...There were some years, it has been calculated, that between one-fifth and one-tenth of all books sold in London, Paris, and Oxford were by Erasmus.

Based on the book 131 Christians Everyone Should Know ,the wiki article about Erasmus claims that "By the 1530s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales". That is incredible by any standard. The same article also states that "Despite a chronic shortage of money, he succeeded in learning Greek by an intensive, day-and-night study of three years, continuously begging his friends to send him books and money for teachers in his letters". Among his most popular books were his Greek edition of the New Testament, the first time the original was made available to the general public;  Enchiridion, published in 1503, was a handbook for laymen that made an "appeal on Christians to act in accordance with the Christian faith rather than merely performing the necessary rites." This book expressed Erasmus' view of Christianity as based primarily on faith as opposed to the mechanical performance of rites, which was the norm during the Middle Ages. The book was printed in many editions and translated into several languages and is considered his most influential work; In Praise of Folly, published in 1511, went into 39 editions by 1539. According to Johnson, in the 1530s, 300,000 copies of his Greek New Testament were in circulation and over 750,000 of his other works.

But was Erasmus really the first best-selling author?
Good question. A Google search came up with two other, different answers. Several sites claim that the title belongs to Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe and other famous titles. However, since he was born towards the end of the 18th century, such a claim seems very doubtful. In his book Sex and Punishment- Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, Eric Berkowitz claims that Martin Luther was the world's first best-selling author, which seems more reasonable. This is the relevant passage: