Archive for September, 2013


In the late nineties, television took a great leap forward. This story could be told in many ways: by focussing on the quality cable dramas, starting with “The Sopranos”; by emphasizing luminous genre myths like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; or by highlighting experimental sitcoms, such as the British version of “The Office,” themselves a reaction to the advent of reality television. Pugnacious auteurs emerged, resistant to TV formulas. The result was one innovation after another: juggled chronologies, the rise of antiheroes, and a new breed of challenging, tangled, ambitious serial narrative. Dramas often combined a plot of the week with longer arcs, a technique pioneered by “The X-Files,” allowing for subtler levels of irresolution. Some ambitious comedies incorporated serial elements, while others, like “Arrested Development,” satirized cliffhangers in much the way that “Soap” had.

Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week”, The New Yorker (30 July 2012), 74.

Jewish law teaches that we should always bring salt to our table and dip bread in salt before eating it. The general explanation given for this is that our table is like an altar; just as sacrifices always included salt, our meals are to be similarly meaningful and thus include salt as well. On a more down to earth level, having just said a blessing on the bread we salt it to make sure we enjoy it as we eat it with gratitude to God. This is similar to the Sefer HaChinuch’s idea that the salt is simply to make the sacrifice tasty.

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, “Salt of the Earth”, The Jewish Week (23 March 2012), 52.

The need for salt on sacrifices can be taken as a metaphorical lesson regarding our prayers, which are like sacrifices before God. Our prayers should include genuine (salty) tears. We are told that, even in dark times of exile, “the gates of tears are never locked.” Just as salt can be destructive or constructive, we must remember that crying can be double-edged: manipulative tears can be a terrible thing; words of hope and prayer filled with genuine tears can lead to redemption on an individual and global scale.

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, “Salt of the Earth”, The Jewish Week (23 March 2012), 52.

Angels can’t be part of the moral universe. Only humans can be. If we go in the direction of the Eitz Yosef, melakhim aren’t moral; they have no ethical language; they do exactly what they’re told. Human beings introduced the realm of the normative or the ethical because, for the first time, it’s possible not to do what you’re told. Animals don’t do what they’re told, but they do what they’re driven to do. Angels do what they’re told. And, in the middle, are human brings who are right in between.

Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Blanchard, “Created Human Being: A Rabbinic Look at the Human Condition” YCT Yemei Iyun 2006 (June 2006: Teaneck, NJ) {http://www.yctorah.org/component/option,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,191/Itemid,13/}

It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us. Simply reducing the machine’s presence will go a long way toward alleviating the disorder. Which points, in turn, to a dog-not-barking-in-the-nighttime detail that may be significant. In the Better-Never books, television isn’t scanted or ignored; it’s celebrated. When William Powers, in “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” describes the deal his family makes to have an Unplugged Sunday, he tells us that the No Screens agreement doesn’t include television: “For us, television had always been a mostly communal experience, a way of coming together rather than pulling apart.” (“Can you please turn off your damn computer and come watch television with the rest of the family,” the dad now cries to the teenager.)

Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame—the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now. And Bill McKibben ended his book on television by comparing watching TV to watching ducks on a pond (advantage: ducks), in the same spirit in which Nicholas Carr leaves his computer screen to read “Walden.”

Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user. A meatless Monday has advantages over enforced vegetarianism, because it helps release the pressure on the food system without making undue demands on the eaters. In the same way, an unplugged Sunday is a better idea than turning off the Internet completely, since it demonstrates that we can get along just fine without the screens, if only for a day.

Adam Gopnik, “The Information”, The New Yorker (14 & 21 February 2011), 130.

When I used to hear parents complain that they didn’t have even a few minutes to scan the newspaper, let alone finish a novel or catch all that year’s Oscar nominees, I inwardly scoffed (sometimes outwardly). Clearly, they just didn’t care that much about Syria or Hilary Mantel or Quentin Tarantino. I mean, really, an average newborn sleeps like 16 hours a day; you can’t squeeze in a Lydia Davis short story or a half-hour of “Girls”? Trying to talk to new moms and dads about culture felt to me like trying to talk to prison inmates about their favorite brunch spots.

Forgive me, fellow parents. I am now in that prison.

I now understand that, yes, a baby seems to sleep a lot, but that you’re watching them for many of those hours to make sure they’re still alive. (Newborn breathing, in my experience, can sound uncomfortably like a death rattle.) I’ve learned that, especially in those early months, time means nothing. Days dwindle to fleeting dots, but individual moments — like getting a sobbing kid into a car seat — can feel endless. And I’ve learned that, in the foggy, confusing, often frightening slipstream of a baby’s arrival, the things that vanish, no matter how much you love and think you need them, are the things that are not all that useful or necessary — even if they once seemed essential to your sense of self. Inessential things like antiquing or golf or, yes, going to the movies. I instantly became one of those fathers I mocked.

Jason McBride, “Two (Sucked) Thumbs Up”, The New York Times Magazine (1 September 2013), 44.

Brainstorming was an immediate hit and Osborn became an influential business guru, writing such best-sellers as “Wake Up Your Mind” and “The Gold Mine Between Your Ears.” Brainstorming provided companies with an easy way to structure their group interactions, and it became the most widely used creativity technique in the world. It is still popular in advertising offices and design firms, classrooms and boardrooms. “Your Creative Power” has even inspired academic institutes, such as the International Center for Studies in Creativity, at Buffalo State College, near where Osborn lived. And it has given rise to detailed pedagogical doctrines, such as the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, which is frequently employed by business consultants. When people want to extract the best ideas from a group, they still obey Osborn’s cardinal rule, censoring criticism and encouraging the most “freewheeling” associations. At the design firm ideo, famous for developing the first Apple mouse, brainstorming is “practically a religion,” according to the company’s general manager. Employees are instructed to “defer judgment” and “go for quantity.”

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

Jonah Lehrer, “Groupthink”, The New Yorker (30 January 2012), 22-23.

A social network is crucially different from a social circle, since the function of a social circle is to curb our appetites and of a network to extend them. Everything once inside is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet, and which all the Better-Nevers rightly testify to, has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.

Adam Gopnik, “The Information”, The New Yorker (14 & 21 February 2011), 130.

In a statement repeated several times in Shas, Rava emphasizes the importance of an individual’s input in Torah study, that is, the process of making Torah one’s own. Let us look at AZ 19a, where this appears in the context of Rava’s ‘musar shmuess’ regarding Talmud Torah. … In other words, our task in studying Torah, if we merit it, is to put our own individual stamp on Hashem’s Torah by filtering it through our own understanding, as limited as that may be. The souls of Kelal Yisrael were all at Mattan Torah, and we each have our own portion of Torah assigned to us. Of course, that understanding, even if part of our ‘self’ contributes to it, must reflect true Torah values and modes of thought and argument. Clearly, this individual stamp on Torah learning applies to the Amoraim; after all, Rava was first and foremost addressing his own colleagues, who were Amoraim. Thus, we should expect that each Amora has his own individual understanding of various issues, and when they differ, seemingly isolated differences might be understood as expressions of a more general outlook.

Yaakov Elman, “Rava as Mara de-Atra in Mahoza”, Hakirah 11 (Spring 2011), 61-62

When done poorly, the cliffhanger is all about shoddy craftsmanship, the creepy manipulation by a storyteller who has run out of tricks. When done well, however, it can be about much more: surprise, shock, outrage, and pleasure—the sort of thing that might send you dancing off the sofa. The cliffhanger is part of some of the silliest shows on TV; it’s also key to understanding many of the greatest ones. It’s the visceral jolt that’s not so easily detached from television’s most erudite achievements. But, then, that’s the mind-body problem of TV, a conversation that has only just begun.

Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week”, The New Yorker (30 July 2012), 74.