Friday, March 21, 2014

Neat Book Review #13 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy book review

Plot summary
The book revolves around Britain's intelligence service, "the Circus", which is tasked with gathering information from foreign countries. This involves spying on other countries, mainly the USSR and its satellites, finding and operating spies, and the "leg work" of passing information to and from them. This is exciting work but something is rotten in the Circus and the head of the service, Control, is determined to find the rat. But his efforts fail spectacularly in an embarrassing international incident, and his reign is replaced by an entirely new regime. His deputy, the almost invisible, mild mannered and deceptively perceptive Smiley is also thrown out. The reappearance of rogue Circus operative, Ricki Tarr, a year later raises the specter of betrayal once again, and now Smiley, one of the few people that can be trusted – maybe – is tasked with finding out the truth: Is there a mole in the Circus and who is he? With no access and barely any resources and with time working against him, Smiley tries to find his way through the muddied waters of the Circus's past, which is also his own, leading to the surprising present.

My opinion
I picked this book up as an "antidote" to the superficial characterization in Jurrassic Park (see my review here), and in this respect I was not disappointed. Much of the book occurs in Smiley's mind and his feelings and thoughts about events and people around him, past and present, are laid bare to the reader. Other characters are also described in a similar manner, though some perhaps in less detail, and the events themselves are often seen and described from different points of view. Clearly, this book is not so much about the "action" – there isn't much – but more about life in the shadows and what it does to the people living there: Here are spies and spymasters who are real, fallible human beings with understandable motives and emotions. In addition, the entire book is written in the author's unique style, which creates a dreamy, unreal atmosphere throughout. Yet, despite the deep characterization and the many insights provided into the characters' motives, the book has a good pace and all the excitement and tension of a good spy thriller. That said, there was one thing that bothered me: the meek, hapless reaction of almost everyone involved when they finally unmask the traitor in their midst. Maybe it's a British thing, not to show any emotions, but I would expect a lot more outrage; there is no crime worse than betrayal.This time around (I've already read this book several times), I also noticed that no one makes a case for Britain, and when Smiley is required to do so he fails to come up with a good answer. In this, perhaps, the book, which was written in the 1970s, foreshadows the decay and decline of British society.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Meaning, Origins, and Evolution of the Jewish Concept of Tikkun Olam - Repairing the World

Tikkun Olam- Repairing the world

The Meaning and History of Tikkun

Tikkun is derived from the Hebrew verb "letaken", meaning to fix or repair. This verb is used all the time in everyday life and has no special meaning. The well-known spiritual meaning of this verb is inferred from two phrases: "Tikkun Olam", which literally means "repairing the world", and "Tikkun Midot", meaning "repairing the character". Both phrases are many times shortened and only the word Tikkun is used, the spiritual meaning being understood from the context. In the case of this post and generally in my discourse on this blog, I will be using the word Tikkun in the meaning of Tikkun Olam, or it's English equivalent "Repair" with a capital R.
But what does it mean, "to Repair the world"? Surprisingly, although this is a very important concept in Jewish belief, the meaning of the phrase remains obscure or at least disputed.The phrase "Tikkun Olam" itself is not mentioned in the Bible, and it appears for the first time in the Mishna, the first and most authoritative interpretation of Jewish law, codified circa 200 A.D. It is used there in a context meaning that we are obligated to do things not because the Jewish law so stipulates, but in order to Repair the world. Unfortunately the Hebrew sages never explained what, exactly, the expression means.

The phrase appears in the Aleynu prayer and was apparently first incorporated in the Rosh Hashanah (New Years) prayer book, and afterwards, perhaps during the Middle Ages or earlier, became a part of the thrice-daily prayer rituals every Jew is obligated to perform. This means that the Jewish people have been praying for world Repair for at least a thousand years. But for many years this was understood by the Sages to mean "Repairing the Character”, or perfecting the moral character of the Jewish believer. Many tracts were written about "Tikkun Midot" attempting to explain the working of the human soul and how to perfect yourself, one of the earliest being the Eight Chapters by Maimonides (12th century A.D.), and the most famous of these being Mesillat Yesharim, since it’s publication in the 18th century.

Much debated among the various writers on these matters was the following question: Can the world be Repaired by following Jewish law and only Jewish law, or does it entail something else, in addition to observing the law (never was it proposed that Tikkun may be achieved by not observing the law). In any case it is clear that for a very long time Repair was meant to be a very personal project. This first changed slightly in the 16th century when Rabbi Isaac Luria created his influential interpretation of Jewish Mysticism (Kabala), wherein he explained that the world, represented by a pottery vessel was, upon creation, shattered and the divine light of God scattered throughout the world, in which good is mixed with evil. According to Lurianic teachings, it is man’s duty to restore the world to its original whole, perfect condition. This can be done by observing the law and other more esoteric practices. Although it is clear that Tikkun here is still a personal project it is also the first time that World Repair is understood to be obligatory for every Jew, and perhaps the main reason for his existence at all: everything a Jew does is connected to World Repair and is supposed to further it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

My First 50 Blog Posts

My first 50 posts celebration

My last post, How to Defeat Writer's Block With Transactional Analysis, was also the 50th post on my blog. I think there is enough now so that people who want to get to know me, see how I write, and what my interests are can do so and can connect with me in a variety of ways. Therefore, I have also made a site map, which includes all 50 post sorted by subject. The subjects are:
  • My Stories and Poems
  • The Writing and Publishing Experience
  • Book Reviews
  • Social Media and Marketing
  • History
  • Faith and Religion
  • The Arts
  • Israel and Judaism
  • Relationships
  • Health Issues, Veganism
  • Relationships
  • Psychology

I also submitted the sitemap to Google and Bing, meaning that my blog is now officially open to the world. If you're new to me, to the blog, or just curious about what you've missed, you can go over the list and do some catching up. On that note, I wish everyone a completely unproductive and restful weekend ❤

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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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How to Defeat Writer's Block With Transactional Analysis

Writer's block slogan: the Parent says thou shalt not write

Hardly a week goes by without someone writing an article about suffering from writer's block, how to cure it or even charmingly dismissing its very existence. Nevertheless, I am going to add to this mass of literature for two reasons: First, I am eminently qualified to speak about the phenomenon, after suffering from writer's block for most of my life. Second, as far as I can tell, although writer's block is clearly a psychological phenomenon, I haven't yet seen an article that explains it in psychological terms. This I will do here, and based on the psychological model presented below, I will also offer remedies. Assuming that a correct model of this problem is used, then these remedies may also be more effective than others. The model I'll present here is based on Transactional Analysis, and the remedies are ones that I have used myself and they have also been successfully applied by my wife with her students (she's a composer and music teacher), for writer's block is by no means a problem unique to writers; all artists are liable to suffer from its devastating effects.

What is Transactional Analysis?

Transactional Analysis is a psychological theory created in the 1950s by Eric Berne, who wrote the wonderful book Games People Play. This theory was elaborated upon and popularized in the 1970s by Dr. Thomas Harris, in the book I'm OK-You're OK. The explanation that follows is based on Harris's book.

In a nutshell, according to Transactional Analysis (henceforth: TA) the human psyche is comprised of three basic states of mind:

1 - The Adult, which is oriented towards reality, processing information and making decisions dispassionately, like a computer. Example: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot.

2 - The Parent, which makes the customs, norms, rules, and standards that govern our behavior, emotions and thoughts. The Parent is the infallible lawmaker, judge, and executioner all rolled into one. It may judge favorably (Good Parent) or negatively (Bad Parent) but it is always judging and it is always right. Example: every authority figure from the beginning of time to the present.

3 - The Child, which contains all our emotions, feelings, and senses. Three different states can be recognized in the child:

The Adaptive Child – This part does its best to adapt to the demands of the Parent. Example: People who accept authority and do their best to appease it (most of civilization)

The Rebellious Child - This part does its best to reject the demands of the Parent and do the exact opposite of its standards, just because. Example: rock music, hippies and the entire Sixties culture (ironically, hipster culture has become so mainstream that children are expected to rebel, and if they don't they are ostracized!)

The Free Child - This part does not care at all about the demands of the Parent. It is centered around the needs of the moment, whatever they may be. It is spontaneous and carefree and endlessly curious, living in the moment just like a kitten, but unlike other animals the Free Child can also be creative. Utter devotion to the emotions, senses, intuition, and creativity are the realm of the Free Child. Examples: the boy who saw that the emperor was naked and shouted it out for all the world to hear, Kramer (from Seinfeld), and babies, until they begin to develop their Adult.

According to TA, every human transaction can be analyzed and understood in these terms. In other words, in each transaction one person is speaking through one of these states of mind and the other person is listening through one of them.  Here is a common example:

Teacher: "Johnny, stop picking your nose!"
Johnny: "Yes, Ma'am."
Johnny, who is five years old, stops picking his nose for a moment but promptly resumes once the teacher's back is turned...

Analysis: The teacher is speaking through the Parent, whose main concern is abiding by the rules. Johnny answers through his Adaptive Child, because he really wants to be a good boy and he usually is, except that his nose is stuffed and he has to get a huge booger out in order to breathe better. His Free Child, who will not be stopped, promptly resumes this important labor. If the teacher was using her Adult, she would have asked questions (the Adult tends to do that) such as: "Why are you picking your nose", or "How does it feel?" But she has already been thoroughly trained to obey her own internal Parent and gets much satisfaction by doing so and by making others learn and obey the same rules. Incidentally, the Parent-Adaptive Child transaction is also one of the most common Games People Play.

As you may have noticed, all of these states of mind exist internally, where most of us experience a constant conversation involving a revolving cast of characters. In the case of writer's block I believe that we have to deal primarily with two of them.

Hypothesis: People who suffer from writer's block have a Parent that is contaminating and obstructing the Free Child

If this is true, then there are two effective solutions: Weaken the Parent and strengthen the Free Child. The rest of the post will describe techniques that accomplish this.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fabulous Vegan Tahini and Peanut Butter Balls

vegan tahina and  peanut butter balls

This blog is not, by any measure, a cooking/recipe blog. However, I am vegan  and once in a while I come across something that is so good, so healthy, and so easy and quick to make that I feel I have no choice but to share. 
Please note that (1)These are great even if you're not vegan and (2) You can print this recipe or turn it into a PDF file with the green print button at the bottom of this post.

Fabulous Vegan Tahini and Peanut Butter Balls
(Recipe for about 20 balls; takes about 15 minutes)

1 box plain biscuits (250 grams or about 1/2 a pound or 9 ounces)
1/2 cup coconut flakes
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons of date honey
1/2 cup tahini (unprocessed, just the raw tahini with nothing added)
1/2 cup water

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Neat Book Review #12 Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Jurrasic Park book cover

Plot summary
In case you are not familiar with the movies, then the book is about an old, eccentric, and very wealthy entrepreneur who manages to lease an island off Costa-Rica and establish there a kind of safari, consisting of dinosaurs brought to life through genetic engineering. This live amusement park is about to open, but some accidents have the investors concerned and a delegation is sent to inspect the island and clear it for the general public. The delegation consists of a paleontologist, a paleobotanist, a skeptic mathematician who advocates chaos theory and predicts disaster, two grandchildren of the entrepreneur, a lawyer, and the staff of the park. When a severe storm hits the island and a computer "glitch" shuts down the electricity, the inspection tour turns into a fight for survival: humans against dinosaurs…There is industrial espionage, danger, death, a modicum of science and science philosophy, and a lot of mayhem. And death.

My opinion
The action in the book, in other words the tour itself, begins only after 150 pages, which are basically all background. I felt that was way too much (almost half the book) and that a book based on plot (barely any characterization here) should move at a much quicker pace. However, maybe I felt that way because I had seen the movie, which really did not have a dull moment. Happily, the moment the tour began, the pace picked up and I enjoyed the ride, until the final chapters, which, along with the ending, did not make sense to me. In fact, there were many things I did not understand about these chapters and the ending itself was most frustrating to me.

Book vs Movie:
I loved the movie and when I saw a review (on Amazon) that the book is even better than the movie, I knew I had to read it. The movie follows the book quite closely (about 80% correspondence) and there are no annoying discrepancies. In fact, I would say that the movie did a great job of capturing the essence of the plot and characters and building upon them an excellent adaptation. The book also reveals that the casting in the movie was simply incredible (well, except for Ellie). I found the movie to be far better than the book and more satisfying, especially since the movie skips the final, odd chapters in favor of a much better and more consistent ending. However, since the book differs somewhat from the movie, there may be a point in reading it, even if you saw the movie.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Do You Need A Theodicy? Here's Mine, In Short Story Form

Burning City by Aarneus at Deviant Art
In the philosophy of religion, the problem of explaining the existence of evil in the world along with the supposed existence of a benevolent, loving, omnipresent and omnipotent god is called theodicy. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about this, probably due to two reasons. First, the idea that got me writing the Jewminator was basically the thought of a human being with super powers, which quite naturally led me to the thought "What if I were God?" and to answers that did not include disease, war, famine and other prevalent evils in this world. The second reason was that lately, in my regular day job, I had to work on several texts concerning the Holocaust. This was the first time that I found myself being able to cope with such materials, since previously the unimaginable cruelty and evil of the Holocaust were too much for me to handle. But still, after finishing the job I was left with the inevitable question: How, in the name of everything that is holy, could God let such a thing happen? Is there no inherent limit to what humans can do to each other? Will we be allowed to mutually kill and torture ourselves to a collective death? In a way, it's like having several two-year old children over at your house to take care of for the afternoon. Leaving them alone for a few hours would be considered completely irresponsible – who knows what would happen? I feel the same way about God and the Holocaust – He just dropped the ball, so to speak.

Anyway, I am not a philosopher and I'm sure that I do not have better  answers to the problem of evil in this world than the experts (and if you are interested in what the experts have to say, you can start with this quite comprehensive wiki article). But I am a creative writer, and I can think of at least one scenario that could explain the co-existence of God and evil, and here it is, my very own fictional theodicy: