Monday, March 10, 2014

The Nine Point Circle

From my Jewish Post series: this one got published last fall. I think it's a really good article.

* * * * * * * *

You’d see him around campus, sometimes striding purposefully into the faculty building, sometimes just standing there in the student lounge, but always alone. He had those thick coke-bottle eyeglasses and a penchant for long black trenchcoats. He wasn’t a student and he wasn’t a exactly a professor either, but they still gave him his own office. He certainly earned his keep in terms of research and publications…but a faculty appointment? Not likely. Much as they respected or even were intimidated by his intellect, he somehow didn’t quite fit in. Not that he would have really fit in anywhere else…
Generations of former U of M student surely know who I’m talking about, even if they don’t know him by name, and didn’t know his story. Except…there are two of them…one in Law, and one in Mathematics. They are Eddy Lipsett and Barry Wolk, and they are Jewish Geniuses of a certain unmistakeable type. Perhaps on occasion the Christian world produces its own Eddys and Barrys, but if so, I haven’t met them yet. 

I hope both of them will forgive me for exaggerating the similarities between them, which I confess to having done for dramatic purposes. Of course they are really two very different people, with their own individual stories that I don’t really know much about, nor do I have their permission to tell, so I’m not going to say much more about them. But if it’s not too presumptuous of me, I’ve always felt a kind of cosmic connection to them, almost as though we three are part of what Lionel Boyd Johnson famously called a karass. Or perhaps I’m mistaken and I’ve simply identified a grandfalloon…who knows? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I suggest you google the religion of Bokonism.)
I’ve known Barry longer than I’ve known Eddy, because my involvement with math goes back a lot farther than my involvement with the Law. He once gave a lecture that I attended on something called the Nine Point Circle, a seemingly classical result of the ancient Greeks except for the surprising fact that it wasn’t actually discovered until 1822. Barry’s talk was a tour de force in which he proved the existence of the circle in three very different ways. It never occurred to me until this moment, but what a shame that I never invited him on my TV show, because then I could be posting him on YouTube. As they say, it’s the world’s loss.

I run into Barry nowadays at the downtown library, where I often go to meet my own private students. Last month we were trying to show that for any quadrilateral inscribed in a circle, the angles add up to 360 degrees. We started by putting four points around the circumference and connecting them with straight lines. It wasn’t too hard to show that the angles had to add up to 360. But Kyle (my student) wasn’t quite satisfied. “What if you just know that the four angles add up to 360…how do you prove that the points lie on a circle?” I told him it was the same proof…you just go through the steps in reverse order…”like so”, I began…but then I found it wasn’t so easy!

We sweated over this for at least 20 minutes before we got it right; and then we saw Barry passing by, on the way to the free Internet terminals. He was already online when we caught up with him, coke-bottle glasses on the table beside him and his face six inches from a screen covered in equations. “Barry”, I interrupted him, “have a look at this, will you?” I showed him what we had been working on, and Barry was like,”oh, it’s trivial…trivial”. “No”, I tried to explain,  “we got the “if” part right away…it’s the “only if” that gave us a hard time…”

“Of course you can’t just reverse the steps” he jumped in. “You have to do it differently…here, give me a piece of paper.” And in seconds he had drawn the proof. A vintage Barry Wolk moment.

I only got to know Eddy in the last year or so, since legal research has become a bit of a hobby with me. Eddy is a much more private person than Barry, and I don’t want to pretend to be on any level of intimacy with him, but I saw him just the other day. It was early in the morning and he was on his way to shakhris. I asked him how his research was going…did he have any interesting cases? Yes, he answered, in fact he had just published something on Whatcott v Saskatchewan, and he started to tell me where I could find the article.

I couldn’t believe my ears. “You’ve got to be kidding: I’m arguing Whatcott next week in Provincial Court!” It was true! I’m defending myself against trespassing charges brought against me by the U of W, and Whatcott is an anti-abortion activist who pleaded Freedom of Expression to successfully beat the rap for trespassing at the University of Calgary.

It turns out Eddy’s case was a little different. It was the same guy, different case. Whatcott had a number of cases in the past decade, all involving abortion protests, including trespassing at the U of Calgary, loitering at the U of Regina (he beat that one too), and something with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission. That last one was Eddy’s case.

Still, I had hoped that this incredible coincidence would have been enough to pique Eddy’s interest in my case and get him to open up. But I had no such luck. As I said, Eddy’s a very private person and has a strict rule against getting involved in actual personal cases. In the meantime, I had unwittingly followed Eddy into shul, and our conversation was interrupted by the khazen’s intonation of the familiar words: piskhu-li shaarey tzedekEddy was already praying, and the shammes was handing me a tallis. Oh my god…was that Eddy harmonizing so beautifully? I turned my head to look in the direction of the sound. No, my was Rabbi Green, singing into his microphone. Eddy was just standing right below the speaker… 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Yechts: The Gerund in Yiddish

I was playing Scrabble last week and I had a seven letter word sitting on my rack: hauling. But there was nowhere to play it…unless it could be pluralized. Is haulings a word? It’s tempting. Hauling is a noun…it’s an activity, and that’s a thing. To be sure, it’s also a verb, as in “I am hauling gravel”. But it’s also a noun: “Hauling gravel is hard work”. What else is the subject of that sentence if not hauling? I think that kind of noun is called a gerund.

But of course, not every noun can be pluralized by adding s. And the fact that it ends in ing is not necessarily the problem. You can have a number of undertakings going on at the same time, and that’s a perfectly good Scrabble word (except it might be too long to fit on the board). You can attend three different poetry readings in the same evening. And so on. But can you have multiple haulings?

To understand what’s going on here, we have to start by noting that there at least two different kind of ing words here. Undertaking and reading are not gerunds in the same sense as hauling. Well…reading is, if you say “Reading is fun”…that’s a gerund. But the “reading” in poetry readings is not the plural of the “reading” in reading is fun. If you see what I mean.

Because haulings actually looks like it might be a word, as in the following conversation: Tom says, “I was hauling garbage all day”…to which Dick replies: “What did you do with the haulings?” It’s a bit contrived, but it’s arguable. Was my Scrabble partner convinced? Well…

The thing is, this is a whole new kind of ing noun, different from the other two we’ve seen do far. It’s clearly different because it only takes the plural (or collective) form…no one takes away a single hauling of garbage. Or droppings. No one picks up a single dog dropping. They pick up droppings with an s. Yes, you can play dropping in Scrabble, if you’re dropping a ball. But it’s really a whole different word from dog droppings.

What about serving? Would you like one serving of Jello with your meal or two? I guess I’m not sure if servings  is more like undertakings or droppings. Maybe it’s somewhere inbetween…but that’s not my point. I want to talk about how these things work in Yiddish. Because in Yiddish, we have three different endings instead of one.

The first one is easy, because it is close to the English ending. Undertaking in Yiddish is unter-nehmung. In fact, in the Galitzianer pronunciation, the ung ending is actually just like the English ing. You can pluralize it with –en, so you have several unternehmungen. Another nice word that takes this type of ending is vorhandlen – to negotiate. “Peace negotiations” in Yiddish are sholem-vorhandlungen.

What about “reading and writing”? In Yiddish, we would have schreiben un lesen (or leyenen if you’re reading from the Torah…no one quite knows why!). The point is it’s a different ending…it’s just the infinitive form of the verb, without the ung. These are basically identical to the German constructions.

The third form is where it gets interesting. Have you ever heard of drippings? I had an English co-worker once from a very working-class background, and he once told me how his mother always used to save the “drippins” for his father, because animal protein in any form was at a premium. He was talking about the drippings from frying bacon…but of course, my readers wouldn’t know anything about that.

It’s funny that in the old country, we also had a culture of poverty, and there was a food item which arguably took the role of bacon for us: it was called grieven, and I don’t know what that word means, but it is sometimes translated as cracklings, and it was a special treat for the children when a goose was slaughtered…I think it was something about the way the skin got fried up in its own fat. So the English had their drippins, and we had our cracklings. But I digress…

I want to tell you about the third kind of ending…the one we use in Yiddish for words like drippings. It only shows up in a handful of words, but it’s very expressive: echts, and it lends a distinctly unsavory flavor to the word it attaches to. For example, the shell of a seed is a schâll; to remove the shell is schâllen; but if you have a big pile of sunflower seeds that you’ve been spitting in bowl (or on the floor), it’s called schâllechts – shellings, if you like.

Another one: saliva. To spit is speien, as in speien in die kasha (pissing in the soup, as we might say). But “saliva” in Yiddish is…yes, speiechts!..literally, “spittings”. Grease is schmierechts…you can see where that comes from. And there’s one I never figured out the story on, except that it’s a substance, presumably sticky and smelly, used in the process of bootmaking: dzhegechts. Maybe it’s a Slavic word. My favorite is ân-tuechts – from ân-tuen sich, to get dressed; and you use it to describe an embarrassing or inappropriate get-up that you find yourself forced to wear. Those are all the examples I can think of now.

Where does this suffix come from? You don’t see it in German…well, not normally. I sometimes visit a German Language discussion group online, and I posted the question: does the form exist in German? I got an interesting answer from one Takkat, a regular contributor, who offered the seldom-used term kehricht…meaning “sweepings”, from kehren, “to sweep”. It was the only example of this form in German that anyone could come up with, and it definitely jibes with the Yiddish pattern in terms of unsavoriness (except it’s missing the final s).

I wonder if any of our readers can think of any more echts words?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Journalese in Yiddish

From my Jewish Post series:

* * * * * * * *

The Yiddish Forverts doesn’t publish a print edition anymore. They still have a pretty active internet presence, but that’s it. I used to check it out once in a while at the Rady Center library, but they stopped subscribing a few years ago. The only Yiddish paper I see nowadays is the Allgemeiner Journal at the downtown library.

They are two very different papers. The Forverts had a number of very capable Yiddishists on staff, which is to say cultured, intelligent writers with a serious attitude towards fostering the language for its own sake. The Allgemeiner Journal is different. As far as I can see, they want to put out a Yiddish paper that their readers will be able to understand…that is, to spread their word as far as possible into the English-influenced milieu of Orthodox New York. And so their writers make use of a Yiddish that the Forverts people would surely look on with horror. 

It’s something that I find fascinating to observe, and yet I’m not sure I can convey it to a general readership. But that’s what I’m going to try. Let’s see how far we get…

I have in front of me an article from last January written by Mendel Adler, one of two or three regular staff writers who are together responsible for 75% of the total content of the Allgemeiner Journal. Here he is, reporting on the evacuation of a Palestinian encampment from “Area I-1” between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim:

“Bei’m melden die evacuierung (in announcing the evacuation) vun die Palestiner vun die gezelten (tents), hât Premier Netanyahu gesâgt as “séi hâben nischt kéin ursach (they have no cause) zu gefinnen sich dort (to be there, lit. “to find themselves there”). “Mir hâben bafõhlen (we have ordered) zu schliessen die ganze gegent (to close the whole area), k’dey menschen sollen sich nischt versammlen dort (in order that people should not assemble there) un ver-ursachen umsüste reibungen (and cause unnecessary friction) un stören die ordnung” (disturb the peace).

Let’s see how this compares with the other guys. Now, the Forverts is really more of a news-magazine and so it focusses more on culture, commentary and historical topics; but so as not to compare apples and oranges, I’ve picked a recent news article, also relating to affairs between Israel and the P. A. As above, I’ve kept my translation as literal as possible so you can hopefully follow it word-for-word:

“Mittwoch bei nacht (Wednesday night) seinen vun der Yisroel-tephisa (prison) bafreit geworen 26 Palestiner terroristen – araus-gelâs’t (released) wie a geste vun guten-willen m’tzad (on the part of) der Yisroel-regierung (government). Bei der residentz vun der Palestiner Administrazia “Mukata” in Ramallah hâben sich zunauf-genummen arum tausend einwõhner (there came together around a thousand residents) zu bagegenen (to meet) die 11 bafreite, welche seinen über-gegeben geworen (who were given over) direkt in die händt vun der administratzia auf dem kontrol-punkt “Beituniah”.

Okay, looking over my two examples I see that I’m hardly proving my point. Maybe because their news-writers are more highly influenced by the wider world as compared to the culture writers, there’s not that much to choose between the two articles. To be sure, the Forverts has two Hebrew words (I’ve marked them with italics) to the zhournal’s one. But even the Forverts uses internationalisms like administrazia and direkt in die händt when there are much more Yiddischlach alternatives…verwaltung for adminsitration, and gleich in die händt. Or even better: über-gegeben geworen dem Instanz gleich in die händt arein. I like that.

And yet even so I find the Forverts excerpt, on some subjective level, to be a bit more flowing and natural than the other one. The very first words of the zhournal article grate on me…”bei’m melden : in announcing”…what’s that called, where the verb is used as a noun…a gerund? I don’t think that’s really an authentic Yiddish form as it appears here. And the –ieren­-verbs like “evacuieren” (another gerund I guess, but nischt dâs bin ich ausen…that’s not my point) where you take any international verb and make it Yiddish with the –ieren ending ….well, the zhournal is rife with them. 

I think the worst Yiddish is where they quote Netanyahu…you can tell it’s bad because you can calque it almost word-for-word right back into English. No one ever spoke Yiddish like that. But I have to allow them a little slack here. If you literally took Netanyahu’s words and converted them into a truly idomatic Yiddish, it would be very hard to avoid replacing the Israeli PM with Tevya der Milchiger. “Would it be so terrible if they should just go somewhere where they wouldn’t be making such tzuris  for us?” Maybe it’s just as well to let the zhournal stick to its journalese.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Anti-Weizmann

From my Jewish Post series:


When I was very young, I learned the story of the Balfour Declaration, and it went something like so: it was 1917 and England was at war; and a young Jewish scientist named named Chaim Weitzmann had recently developed a process that was of tremendous strategic importance. To reward him, he was brought before Lord Balfour who promised him anything he wished for. “Nothing for me,” replied Weizmann, “but for my people…” And in that moment the destiny of the Jewish People was forever changed, and set on a path which led to the creation of the State of Israel.

I don’t remember where I first heard the story; I only had two years of Talmud Torah before my parents put me in public school. But I’m guessing the story is still being told in our Hebrew schools today in very much the same way. It may be a bit of a melodramatization, but I’m not here to quibble with the details: in fact, the story is substantially true in its major outlines. But it raises two interesting questions: first, where would we be if Weizmann had not been in the right place at the right time…and secondly, what good would it have done if Britain had not won the war?

Oddly enough, it turns out things might not have been so different after all. Because it seems that Germany had its own Dr. Chaim Weizmann…the “anti-Weizmann”, if you like, and his name was Fritz Haber. The son of Jewish parents, he had converted to Christianity more as a symbol of allegiance to his adopted Fatherland than through any religious conviction. In 1911, he discovered a process whereby ammonia could be synthesized by direct combination of hydrogen and nitrogen…a process which today bears his name, and which has long since been adopted for the edification of high school students as the iconic prototype of how to calculate chemical equilibria in mixed reactions. By the second year of the war, Germany had been cut off by British blockade from access to Chilean saltpeter, until then the world’s primary source of industrial ammonia. The Haber process is credited with keeping Germany in the war for three more years. And if that wasn’t enough, Haber was an enthusiastic participant in the chemical warfare industry...a circumstance which led his beautiful wife, Klara Immerwahr, also a converted Jewess, to take her own life in 1915.

Post-war Germany was indeed grateful to Haber. As director of the Kaiser Wilhelm institute in the Weimar Republic, Haber’s scientific influence was unbounded. Indeed, even Hitler did not fire him after coming to power in 1933. But as director of the Institute, Haber became responsible for discharging all his Jewish colleagues and co-workers. And when it came to this, he found his loyalty to the Fatherland was stretched to the breaking point. After doing his best to secure alternate employement for his fellow Jewish scientists, Haber left Germany for good, finding temporary refuge in England. Here he accepted Weizmann’s offer of directorship of the Sieff Institue in Rehovot, and he departed for Palestine in 1934. But he was already in ill health and died enroute in Switzerland of a heart attack. (For more on Haber’s remarkable life, you can read an excellent biographical essay by Bretislav Friedrich which you can link to from the Wikipedia page on Haber.)

Weizmann and Haber…two very different men, destined by fate to play complimentary and contradictory roles in world and Jewish history. And what of their scientific legacies? Weizmann, of course, drifted away from science as the Zionist enterprise occupied more and more of his time and energies. Nevertheless, his process for the synthesis of acetone remained industrially viable until as recently as the 1980’s: using bacteria from the clostrida family, Weizmann’s process yielded a mixture of acetone, butanol and ethanol from ordinary starch. Eventually, this method was replaced by purely chemical processes whereby acetone is produced as a petroleum by-product. As for Haber Process, it is going strong to this day. It has had an enormous impact on the worlds food supply; it is said that one-third of the world’s agricultural production depends on ammonia created by the Haber Process. To put it another way, every other nitrogen atom in your body has at some time passed through the high-pressure steel cylinders of a Haber Process factory.