Blog: October 2013

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Who is "we" in Genesis 1?

Genesis 1:26 says:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness".

"Us"? "Our"? Who is God talking with?

According to Judaism God is indisputably one, not several beings in one (nor a member of a pantheon of gods). So what does the use of first-person plural mean? The predominant explanation is that God is addressing other (non-godly) beings, though some say God is speaking with Himself (like one does when considering both sides of a dilemma).

In B'reishit Rabbah (an early midrash collection) 8:3 Rabbis Yehoshua ben Levi and Shimon ben Nachman say that God is consulting the rest of creation, like a king who consults advisors. R' Ammi says God is consulting His own heart. On 8:4 R' Berekiah seems to say that God refers to mercy personified (God infuses man with mercy as part of creation, he says). It's worth noting that the rabbis personify various attributes and inanimate objects quite a bit in the midrash; R' Berekiah isn't doing anything unusual here.

In 8:5 R' Shimon reports an argument among the ministering angels about whether man should be created. The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b, also addresses this idea; R' Yehudah said in the name of Rav that when God wanted to create man, He first created a company of ministering angels and then said to them "is it your desire that we make man in our image?".

Why would God consult anyone? B'reishit Rabbah 8:8 offers this (quoted from the Soncino translation):

R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan's name: When Moses was engaged in writing the Torah, he had to write the work of each day. When he came to the verse, AND GOD SAID: LET US MAKE MAN, etc., he said: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Why dost Thou furnish an excuse to heretics?’ ‘Write,’ replied He; ' Whoever wishes to err may err.’ 'Moses,’ said the Lord to him, ‘this man that I have created -- do I not cause men both great and small to spring from him? Now if a great man comes to obtain permission [for a proposed action] from one that is less than he, he may say, " Why should I ask permission from my inferior!" Then they will answer him, " Learn from thy Creator, who created all that is above and below, yet when He came to create man He took counsel with the ministering angels.’"

Conclusion: God created all things and is the sole ruler of the universe. But that doesn't mean that God didn't create and interact with divine beings (a heavenly court), just like He would later interact with earthly beings, and according to R' Shmuel He had an intentional educational purpose in doing so.

Further reading: In compiling this answer I made significant use of Sefer Ha-Aggadah (English: The Book of Legends), compiled by Hayim Nachman Bialek and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, along with the sources I cited previously.

Suspension of disbelief

It's funny the things that do and don't trigger suspension-of-disbelief problems for me. I enjoy speculative fiction -- science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, etc. This means accepting some basic premises -- faster-than-light travel, teleportation, magic, time travel, or whatever. I'm totally cool with all that.

I had two recent experiences with other factors in such stories.

First, last night I finally saw Looper (Netflix: last year's movies this year, which is fine with me). I enjoyed it in general (the ending moved it from "ok" to "I liked that"), but some of the implementation details gave me pause. (Everything I'm about to say is revealed in the first ten minutes of the movie.) The basic idea is that "the mob" in the future sends people they want to kill back in time 30 years to have hired assassins do the deed and dispose of the bodies in the past -- easier to get away with. That's fine. But the assassins know that they aren't going to be allowed to live past that point in the future -- you get 30 years of high pay and then at some point the guy sent back is going to be you and you "close the loop" by killing him. Ok, I can work with that.

So...why does the future mob need assassins in the past? Why not just send bodies back? Or if the time-travel device only works with live people, then -- given that we've seen them land very precisely in geo-space and time -- why not send them into a live volcano? And if they need assassins, why not go back 100 years and then not have to worry about them catching up?

As I said, I enjoyed the movie -- but I couldn't help wondering about such obvious questions, which could have been addressed with a few sentences of dialogue but weren't, while at the same time accepting the time-travel premise just fine. Maybe I'm weird.

In a similar vein, I recently finished reading The Domesday Book by Connie Willis, which coincidentally also involves time-travel. In this case they're sending a historian back to the middle ages for direct observation. She's got an implanted recording device, something like a universal translator (also implanted)... and neither a homing beacon (should they need to rescue her) nor a beacon she can drop at the rendezvous point (matched up to an implanted detector). The history department has budget for a time-travel net but not homing beacons? Bummer. (I realize that this would totally mess up the plot of the book.) Also, apparently in the future they only have land-lines. I enjoyed the book (which I read because of the song (YouTube, lyrics)), but I couldn't help noticing.

I guess it's the little things that catch my eye.

Lots of discussion in the comments on this one.


Bad news: the furnace's pump is dead. Good news: it's under warranty. (Questionable news: it was that young and died anyway...) Bad news: the repair guy didn't have a replacement; try again tomorrow. Good news: we found this out now, so with luck it'll be fixed before the predicted lows in the lower 30s mid-week.

This afternoon the network hub in my office just up and died. I wasn't doing anything particularly taxing at the time -- not even streaming video. :-) There one moment, gone the next. For now I've moved the incoming network cable directly to my Mac; I rarely use the legacy PC anyway and no longer have a laptop that would benefit from being plugged in, but I'll probably get another small hub anyway just so I can use the PC if I need to. (The PC doesn't have a monitor and keyboard; when I use it I connect using VNC.)

While changing the cable on the Mac I knocked the video cable loose; it's one of those mini connectors that some Macs use, with an adapter to support a regular connector. When I plugged it back in, making sure everything was tight, the colors on my monitor were slightly off -- brighter and a little yellower. No amount of adjusting would fix it, but after a reboot it was fine. (I had a vague memory of that happening once before.) I do not have a mental model for this failure mode yet; why would anything software-side care about that cable being unplugged and replugged, and why would a reboot (with no further adjustment of the cable) make a difference?

Nifty gift

Some time ago a friend asked me when my birthday is because he had the "perfect" gift for me. (We don't normally send gifts to each other, but this was an exception.) I'd forgotten all about that until a package arrived recently.

It contained a very nice, hefty flashlight with a good solid grip. That was a little puzzling, but there was more amidst the packing peanuts. The package also contained a copy of the book Defensive Tactics with Flashlights, apparently written for police officers. This looks like a fascinating read (I'm not very far through it yet), and it tickles that "hand-weapon" interest that goes back to my SCA fighting days. As a pedestrian I've sometimes found myself contemplating the defensive properties of umbrellas, too. (And, I learned from Google, "flashlight tactics" is apparently a thing. I had no idea.)

Then I turned the flashlight on and was surprised by a blue beam. A very powerful blue beam (LED). Looking more closely: ultra-blue. That is, it's a "black light". Why is that interesting? Because I see into the UV spectrum, so that light does more for me than for others.

I'm impressed by my friend's ability to combine odd bits of trivia about me in this way. Nifty!