The Ghost Mask Maker of Jiufen

When I was a professor in Tamsui Oxford University College in Taiwan, my students liked to invite me on outings to see other parts of the island. One time a whole group of us, students and professors, traveled together to the town of Jiufen, (九份) which means “Nine Portions”.

The ghost mask maker, shining a flashlight on his own face, surround by the masks he had made.

There are many things to see in this town, but what they particularly wanted to show us was the house of the ghost mask maker. All the way there, the students were chattering about the ghost mask maker, and I had no idea what they meant.

“There is a man,” they tried to explain. “He makes ghost masks. That is all he does, all day long. Because of this, the walls of his house are covered with ghost masks!”

I did not know what to think of that, until we got to the ghost mask maker’s house. He was a happy, jolly man, and sure enough, the walls of his house were covered with ghost masks. He seemed to enjoy acting the part of a crazy man for the students, and I wondered if that is all there was to him. Was he just a crazy old guy who made ghost masks all day?

The artbook the ghost mask maker gave me

In the corner, on the floor, I saw some canvases. I asked him about them, through the interpretation of the students. His aspect changed. It turns out he had been a famous painter once. He had had shows. There was even an artbook with prints of his paintings. I wanted to buy the book, but he would not accept my money. He gave me a copy of his book for free. I still have it.

His name was Wu Jyh Chyang. And today, I shared his paintings with Bow. Bow very much enjoyed the art of Wu Jyh Chyang. I wish I could share this photo of Bow and the artbook with the Ghost Mask Maker of Jiufen. I wonder how he is today.

Bow leafing through the Ghost Mask Maker’s art

Copyright 2013 Aya Katz — Words and Pictures

[This article was first published in 2013 on a site that has since gone defunct.]


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Taking a Hiatus

Recently I talked about dropping out of the rat race, and why some young people who were doing this had my sympathy. One comment that kept recurring was that they had better not try to drop back in, once they drop out. There was a kind of bitterness to this statement that caught me off guard. The commenters sounded so angry and offended by the idea that someone might want to quit.

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It was as if these people commenting were so deeply entrenched within the system that they were afraid of freeloaders! Which is very funny, because it is a system that encourages freeloading! If they don’t like freeloading, they should change the system. A really good system allows people to move in and out freely without exploiting anyone.

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Within a lifetime people make many different choices. Dropping out of the employment market might happen when:

  • a mother chooses to stay home and raise children.
  • a.writer takes time to finish a novel
  • an entrepreneur tries to develop a new business
  • a scientist takes time to do independent research
  • someone who is burned out and tired stays home to recharge batteries
  • a sick person works full time on making a recovery
  • an older person has decided that he has worked enough, has enough savings to retire and so he does
  • a younger person sets out to see the world before embarking on a career
  • someone who cannot find a place to work in his own country goes abroad to accept employment
  • a young person discouraged by a bad market decides to sit it out till a good job opportunity appears

The possibilities are endless, and in each of these cases, it is really the choice of the person in question whether they want to earn money at a job in their own country or do something else for a while. As long as no one is mooching off anyone else, they don’t need anyone else’s permission. The choice to quit can be permanent, but it also can be temporary. And yes, people can also change their minds.

A mother who thought she wanted to be a stay-at-home-mom may decide that it is really not for her. Or the children may grow up, and she then resumes her career. The writer may finish the novel and go back to work. Or he may experience writer’s block and go back to work. The entrepreneur’s business might start to show a profit, so he will begin to pay taxes again and be back in the system, or conversely, it could go badly, and he will go back to being an employee. I won’t list all the things that could happen for each example, but you get the idea. It is all right to drop out, and it is all right to drop back in. How do people decide? It’s whatever is best for them.

I’ve done it many times myself. After law school, I took a year off to write a novel, before I started my law practice. Nine years into my law practice, I decided to go back to school and get a PhD in linguistics. After that, I could not find an academic position in the US, so I went and worked in Taiwan for three years. Later, I came into some money that enabled me to quit my job in Taiwan, so I came back to US and did ape language research full time. I hoped this would lead to a career success in linguistics, but when it didn’t, I started publishing books and writing online. If tomorrow I get a great job offer, I might be back in the system. What would be wrong with that? Why shouldn’t people make changes in their life and decide what they want to do as they move along from one thing to another?

In a system that is fair, nobody would be afraid that somebody else’s life choices – to work, or not to work – would have anything to do with them. Nobody would say, well if she’s taking time off to be with the kids, she’d better not ever come back to work. Or if his scientific research does not pan out, we never want to see him teaching science 101 around here again. In a system that works, dropping in and out would be understood as normal and right and even helpful to others, as well as oneself.

I believe that when we follow our own internal urgings, it will eventually turn out the best for everyone. And if you have no idea what I mean, then you should re-read “Who are the flowers for”.

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Copyright 2013, 2017 Aya Katz


Gleaning from the Book of Ruth

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Modeling the Audible Vacuum County Shirt

I am not really comfortable modeling clothes. Julia Hanna did a much better job showing the Vacuum County T-shirt to full advantage.

But this is the Audible Vacuum County T-shirt. So far, I think I am the only person on earth who has one.

And I think the person who is best qualified to model it is Kelly Clear. With a kilt, of course. But for the time being here is the back of the shirt on me.

It’s a very comfortable shirt and allows you to move around unhampered, even if your chimp is handling your iPhone and you need to move fast!

Bow didn’t want me to model the shirt. He just wanted to go inside. But the chimp in your life might really like the shirt.

To order the book, click here. To order the regular Vacuum County shirt, click here. To order the Audible Vacuum County shirt click here.


The Vacuum County Shirt

What is Vacuum County All About?

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Archiving Artwork Online

A painting I made in art when I was about fourteen

Sometimes we have drawings or paintings we are not particularly proud of, but they have sentimental value. As amateur artists, should we keep everything but our best work away from the public? Will it detract from our “reputation” if we publish the less than perfect work that we created in the past? I used to think that. until I misplaced a drawing I really liked, but found that I did have a photo of it online.

Here’s what I think about it now: when we write a novel, it is good to print up a hard copy, because something might happen to the original electronic file. When we draw or paint something, it is good to make an electronic copy, because something might happen to the physical artwork.

Another very early painting of mine that used to hang in my grandmother’s apartment

Do we have to publish everything we want to archive? No, not necessarily. But even with my most  imperfect paintings and drawings, I don’t feel so ashamed of them that I don’t want to share.

Take these two paintings that  I made in art class when I was fourteen, and I was just learning to use acrylics. Clearly they are amateurish in so many ways, but I still like to look at them, and I think there is something to learn even from the obvious mistakes.

If we do not expect everything we produce to be perfect, but there is some joy in the overall effect, why not share it with others. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to look.

This is a photo of a sketch of my children that used to hang in the pens. I don’t

A sketch of my kids that has disappeared.

know what happened to it.  It just disappeared. I did not even notice it was gone until very recently. But because I had written about it on a site that has since gone defunct, I was able to find the electronic file. I think it is worth preserving, because it is a part of my artistic endeavor, even if it is a deeply flawed attempt. Maybe someday I will try again, using this sketch as a reference point for a brand new painting. I feel better knowing that the sketch will be available to me online, even if the laptop where I found it today and its hard disk are damaged.

Watching how our artwork improves over time is best served by having available for comparison some of our less developed works.


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Benefits of Risk Taking

My daughter when she was learning to turn over

The social, pediatric and medical policies that have been circulating in the United States in the past several decades and up to the present have had the tendency to penalize health, intelligence and success in favor of sickness, lowered cognitive performance and less independent functioning on the part of all citizens. When this progression is mentioned, it is often confused with reallocation of resources, redistribution of wealth or sharing. But that is not the full story. In many cases, the lowering of potential achievement happens without redistributing wealth by the application of universal policies that have the overall effect of lowering potential for the able and reducing risk for the less able, and this happens even when we do not know who the more able or the less able are in advance.

These policies are not a question of discrimination against successful people so much as a matter of ensuring that all people, whoever they are, have lowered performance but less risk.

I am going to give three examples of policies that work this way, and each such policy can be discussed in more detail in a future article.

  • All newborns are forced to lie only on their back and not on their bellies, so that the very few newborns who might succumb to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) do not die a crib death. Since there are no markers for greater risk factor for SIDS at birth, and SIDS threatens all economic or ethnic populations, this policy is applied to all without discrimination, and its effect is to 1) reduce the incidence of SIDS in defective infants and 2) cause developmental delays in rolling over and becoming more mobile in healthy infants.
  • All children are vaccinated against childhood diseases such as chicken pox, mumps, measles and rubella, in order to ensure that those children whose immune systems are not as strong will survive the childhood diseases in question. The children who would have survived those diseases in any event are prevented from getting to make a normal exercise of their immune system in order that those with faulty immune systems do not perish. The result for the population at large is a lowered immune function across the board, partly because of the lack of selective pressure and partly because of the effect of vaccines on otherwise healthy children. In some rare cases, healthy children are severely damaged in order that sick children should not die.
  • All taxpayers with earned income below a certain threshold have part of their income withheld from them under the social security system. This applies equally to rich or poor below that threshold. They are then paid social security benefits upon retirement. Without any regard to the fact that no funds are earmarked to pay for the benefits or the apparent mismanagement of the funds, the overall result of this system, even when it works as designed, is to help those people who would have squandered that money if they had simply been allowed to have it right away, while penalizing those people who would have known how to save the money or to invest it wisely themselves. The eventual result for the population at large is an economic benefit for people who are not good at managing money and an economic penalty for those who are good at managing money. This effect is quite apart from any redistribution that the social security system also causes. This works even though we do not know which individuals are benefited and which are damaged by the system.

When we talk about the perils of equalization, many progressives respond that everyone owes something to the society they are a part of and that sharing of resources is good, even when forced on more successful individuals against their will. While I don’t agree with that, there is another more important point that such answers entirely miss. We don’t always know in advance who the more successful or healthier or smarter people are going to be. Looking at an infant at birth, there is usually no way to know whether this individual will pass all or any of life’s tests. We don’t know who is destined to die of SIDS, but we do know that if we make all the necessary adjustments so that those who are defective can thrive, then we are reducing the potential of everyone who would have done better under the care that a parent would normally give a child, without being hampered by concerns that placing an infant on its belly might cause death. We are dooming an entire population of children to developmental delays and flat heads, just so that some babies — and we don’t even know who they are — will not die a tragic, mysterious death.

We tell parents to immunize all their children, even though some will be damaged by the immunization, most would have survived the childhood disease anyway, and only a very few would die of it if they contracted the original disease. This is not about sharing the pie more equally; it is about making some people sicker and most people a little less healthy so that people who are born sick will not die. Is that ethical?

In the case of social security, the system is designed to apply equally to everyone. Up to a certain threshold everyone pays in. If we forget about all the things that are wrong with the system and merely talk about the benefits that it is intended to achieve, we can see that without even a single redistribution of resources, the system hampers those who are good with managing their own money while helping those who would have squandered it all if they had been allowed to keep it.

The question is not whether we all want to help society. The question I am addressing here is quite different: if we really do care about society, why would we want to weaken it by reducing the effectiveness of healthy and efficacious members and damaging the health and effectiveness of nearly all? Is it ethical to create a system that lowers the potential of some for the sake of others who had lower chances to begin with? My answer is no. But maybe you care nothing about such ethics involving individuals. Maybe you only care about society as a whole. The question is: how does society as a whole benefit by having the general population weakened in matters of health, cognitive development or fiscal responsibility?

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Insurance and the Safety Net

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Insurance and the Safety Net

Sword and Bow on the Trampoline

Nowadays, when Bow and I look out on the backyard we see our dog Leo lounging on the trampoline. But there was a time not long ago, when Sword and Bow used to play on that trampoline together. I mentioned this once on social media and reminisced about how it was a wonderful experience for all of us.

When I wrote about our trampoline, I got two comments that I thought were interesting. One person said that where she lives, nobody has trampolines, because the insurance companies would increase the charges for homeowner’s insurance on anyone who had one, and this has a chilling effect on trampoline ownership.

Another person mentioned that she has a trampoline with a safety net. I told her we never got a safety net for ours because Bow would have destroyed it, but that in retrospect, I was glad we never got one, because it would have lulled my children into a false sense of security. Instead, I made it very clear to them that no one would catch them if they fell, and so they had better not fall. And they never did!

This got me to thinking of the concept of insurance as a kind of safety net.

A trampoline really is dangerous. So is a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee on a trampoline with a little girl you would think would be very dangerous. But really it depends on the chimpanzee, the little girl and their mother to see to it that things do not get out of hand. I insisted they jump close to the center of the trampoline and that they do so in a safe manner. I supervised. And as athletic as my children are compared to me, they are not super-athletic, so they never tried any dangerous stunts. I have heard about children getting hurt on trampolines. I have heard of it happening with a safety net on.

But you could also say that it’s a matter of statistics. That our case was unusual, but that insurance companies play the numbers game, and that statistically speaking, if lots of people and their chimpanzees jumped on a trampoline without a safety net then someone was bound to get hurt.

I can definitely see the insurance company’s point of view. If I were in the business of selling insurance, then I, too, might not want to bet on nobody getting hurt, especially if I stood to lose money on it. So I would probably tell people not to do what I allowed my own children to do, because I do not know those people and some of them might not be very careful and somebody would end up getting hurt and I would have to pay for it.

The thing is, to me, our family is not a statistic. And I can tell you with 100% certainty in hindsight that we made it through the years of a little girl and a chimpanzee on a trampoline with flying colors, and nobody in fact got hurt. It would be a real shame if an insurance company robbed us of those beautiful memories.

In fact, if any insurance company had tried that, they would have seen me cancel the policy. If all of them did, then I would do without insurance at all. My house is paid up. There is no law that says that I have to have homeowner’s insurance. Which means that I am free to make my own risk calculations.

There are, however, other kinds of insurance policies that are now being forced on me, and I am afraid that it’s not just about the money. It might also be about what sorts of chances I get to take with my own life and that of my family. It might be about how much fun we can have or whether we get to stay together at all.

A safety net is a very dangerous thing, even when you choose it yourself, because it can lull you into a false sense of security and make you less vigilant about real dangers. But a safety net that you cannot choose to discard is a noose around your neck.

Copyright 2013 Aya Katz – – Words and Images

When Sword Met Bow — Order Now

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Remembering Amnon Katz

My father, Amnon Katz, died seventeen years ago today. It was October 3, 2000. His helicopter crashed and he was killed instantly. There were no other people on board. It was an experimental helicopter he had built with his students at the the Universiy of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He was sixty-five years old at the time, and a Cudworth Endowed Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Alabama.

My father, Amnon Katz, on his tricycle

To the right is a picture of my father mounted on a pony in 1938 in Krakow before the war broke out. To the left is photo of him, probably taken for some identification document, when he was a refugee in Vilnius,Lithuania, on the way to Israel.

Amnon Katz was born in 1935 in Krakow, Poland. Here is a picture of him riding his tricycle in a  park in Krakow when he was three years old. When he was four, he and his parents left the country by stealth, and took a long and arduous journey that led to Palestine, where they settled down. I know that none of his relatives who remained in Poland survived. But looking at this picture, I suddenly wonder what happened to the tricycle.

My father’s parents were Zionists, and so he spoke Hebrew at home even before the move. He had a nanny who spoke Polish with him, but his parents only ever addressed him in Hebrew. It was a grand linguistic experiment he was involved in: reviving a dead language.

My father and his Polish nanny

Neither of his parents was a native speaker of Hebrew. There were no native speakers until the language was revived in the late nineteenth century by Zionists. Yet my father became a native speaker, because that is what his parents spoke to him from birth.

When people ask me how dare I run a linguistic experiment on my own children, I smile and reply that there is an ongoing family tradition to experiment linguistically on our children. As far as I know, it has never done anyone any harm to be exposed to dead languages that have been revived.

My father in Texas with our dog Aza and the twin engine he called Gearcheck

My father’s love of flight developed en route to Palestine, when he boarded his first plane. But his first career was as a physicist, at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth, Israel. It was there that he met my mother. It was also there that he wrote and published the following books: Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Field Theory, Academic Press 1965 and Principles of Statistical Mechanics (The Information Theory Approach), (Freeman 1967).

My father was a member of the Canaanite movement. He believed in separation of church and state and equal rights for all Israelis, of whatever ethnicity or religion. He also thought Israel should not accept aid from the United States, and he believed it should keep all territories conquered in war.

In 1970, disillusioned with politics in Israel and the uselessness of the academic calling, my father decided to immigrate to the United States and become an aerospace engineer. But he had much to learn about industry, and especially the way the defense industry has been corrupted by government contracts.

My father also ran his own company, Inverted-A, and he designed one of the first electronic flight simulators for general aviation: the Minisimulator IIC. He is the founding member of Inverted-A Press, which I inherited from him. His book one political book, Israel: The Two Halves of the Nation was published by Inverted-A.

Eventually, my father went back to academia. While a professor at the University of Alabama, he published the following two books: Subsonic Airplane Performance, (Society of Automotive Engineers 1994) and Computational Rigid Vehicle Dynamics, (Krieger 1997).

My father has always been my role model. He was an independent thinker and a pioneer in more than one discipline. I owe everything I am today – even the weird stuff – to him.


My Parents’ Early Childhood Memories and Zionism

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An Extended Synopsis of The Debt Collector

Blood Samosude is someone to fear.  A vigilante enforcer of contracts, Blood lives outside the law and is shunned by respectable society. In the town, they warn one another about him.

The debt collector, the debt collector,
They don’t call him Blood for nothing.
He has no heart, he has no soul,
No pity, patience or forbearance.
Outside the law, out of control,
There’s nothing he won’t do to scare us.

Children frighten each other with graphic descriptions of what he might do to them, if he met them on some dark night.

He’ll tear all the teeth from your mouth like a dentist,
Except that he’ll do it without Novocaine.
The way they did back when it wasn’t invented.
And he’ll laugh in your face when you cry out in pain.

He’ll take all your teeth, and no one can stop it,
And he’ll whistle a tune feeling chipper and merry.
Then he’ll wrap them in tissue and sell them for profit.
Each one for a quarter paid by the tooth fairy.

Everybody who owes money or who has reneged on a promise both loathes and fears him. But when Helga Hauser, a financially struggling widowed landlady, needs someone to help her against her unruly tenants, the Larks, the Debt Collector is her only hope.

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The Lark family has seven children and one on the way. They are living on welfare in Mrs. Hauser’s rent house, and they do not pay their rent and are also late with the bills, but they are not thieves.  The Larks consider themselves to be decent folk. They are law abiding people.

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Into the lives of the Larks steps the beautiful, flirtatious  social worker, Siren Thompson. Siren has been sent by the State to make sure that everything is okay with the Larks, and especially with their children, who are considered “at risk”. Siren is concerned for the poor and the downtrodden,  and she loves everyone.

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Blood, the Debt Collector, happens to overhear Siren singing this song, when he is on his way to collect rent from the Lark family that is owed to his client, Helga Hauser. He is charmed by Siren’s enthusiasm, and the two exchange words. Blood and Siren are both idealists, but their ideals are different. Siren wants a world where no child is ever hungry or hurt. But Blood wants to live in a world that is fair, where people keep their promises –or else.

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Things begin to unravel when Blood shoots and injures Constable Peeples, whose job it is to prevent the eviction.  Blood goes into hiding, while Constable Peeples makes a full recovery. Two of the Lark children, Dexter and Sophie, who have learned to respect Blood when he helped them collect a debt from their parents,  decide to go with him, and they ask him why he lives outside the law, the way he does. Why isn’t Blood an officer of the State, instead,  like Constable Peeples, if he is so interested in enforcing the law?  His answer is “I’d Rather Be Free”.

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The children, who begin to miss their parent, return to find that their mother is in the hospital, having given birth to yet another baby. But Siren has already reported the absence of the children, spurring an investigation by child protective services that eventually leaves seven year old Sophie in the hands of a cruel foster mother who wants to adopt her without her consent.

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When the Larks learn that Sophie is in danger, they realize that the Debt Collector is the only one who can help them against the welfare state. But they don’t know where he is. He has gone into hiding. The only person who knows how to contact Blood is Mrs. Hauser, their former landlady. But when Lottie Lark  sees Mrs. Hauser on her knees, trying to scrub the stains out of the dirty floor that she has left in their former residence, she suddenly realizes that she owes Mrs. Hauser an apology.

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Mrs. Hauser, moved by this apology, tells the Larks how they can contact Blood. At first, Blood does not want to help the Larks, until he realizes that it is his fault the State took Sophie away. He had no right to take the children away from their parents without permission. He has contributed to the problem. Overcome with remorse, Blood apologizes to Lottie Lark.

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Blood goes off and saves Sophie, but is shot in the process of illegally removing her from her foster home. Mrs. Hauser provides a safe house for both Blood and the Larks, and even tells Constable Peeples who comes to check on her that the crying baby the Larks have left in her living room is her own grand child. While Blood recovers from his injury, Siren, the social worker, learns how to apologize by taking lessons from Carl Lark, the welfare father.

Eventually, after being well-schooled by Carl, Siren manages to apologize to Blood for her contribution to the problems of the Larks and Mrs. Hauser, and for trying to sabotage him.

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In the end, the Larks and Mrs. Hauser come to terms, and they realize that tenants need landlords, and landlords need tenants, just as children need parents, and parents need their children. Carl Lark agrees to work for Mrs. Hauser as a handyman, and he asks Blood to make sure that she does not go back on her promise to pay him his wages. The Larks learn that they have as much to lose to government meddling as Mrs. Hauser does. Children are precious to their parents. Rent is  essential to the continued existence of landlords,  and nobody needs a government that redistributes either money or children. Even Siren reforms  and agrees that everybody needs a person like the Debt Collector, to make sure that important promises are kept.


Copyright 2017 Aya Katz and Daniel Carter. All rights reserved,

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Talk Like a Pirate Day

[This article was first published in 2013 on a website that has since gone defunct.]


A sketch of Jean Laffite by Lanie Frick

What is it about pirates? Why are people so attracted to them? Why is today, September 19, celebrated by some people  as talk-like-a-pirate-day?

In the past, pirates held no attraction for me, as I believed they were mere robbers of the sea. I was not interested in thievery, I was not interested in treasure, and I had no desire to talk like Long John Silver from Treasure Island.

But in the past two years, as I became immersed in the life story of Jean Laffite, I think I came across the real reason people are so interested in pirates. Pirates live by their own rules, often form their own governments and offer an alternative way to mete out justice. Many of the people that we think of as pirates today – people like Jean Laffite – were actually privateers. They performed as private navies, doing the work that real naval officers would not do, for a fraction of the cost.

Laffite’s real crime before the battle of New Orleans was tax evasion. He and his brother Pierre came to Louisiana as smugglers. They got around the Embargo Act which outlawed all international trade. They were importers of goods people wanted, but could not get. When the Embargo was lifted, they avoided customs, and brought ashore goods to be purchased by the citizens of New Orleans. Everybody was grateful for what they did – except two groups: merchants who sold for a higher cost and the United States government’s Revenue Service.

Now, supposedly, the Revenue Service was collecting taxes so that it could finance the United States Navy in the War of 1812. But when the British came to recruit Laffite, he gave all the information about the British to the local authorities who turned it over to the U.S, Navy. And the Navy went on the attack – not against the British – but against Laffite’s Baratarian privateers. They cared more about tax evasion than an invading army. They looted the stores with all the goods belonging to the Laffites and sold them for profit. Commodore Patterson and his men took privateering ships that could have been used for the national defense and sold them for money to line their own pockets.

When despite all this, Laffite saved the United States from the British in the Battle of New Orleans, the goods the Navy confiscated from him were never returned. So, I ask you, who is the real pirate here?

People say that pirates – real pirates – are bad and they are against them, but that they enjoy putting on costumes and saying “Aargh” for a day. Just for fun. Doesn’t mean anything. But the real attraction of “pirates” is the one we seldom acknowledge – that they are a welcome alternative to the tyrannical governments that rob us every day of our hard earned cash – not in order to fight an invasive enemy – but just to line their own pockets.

Copyright 2013 Aya Katz


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Gleaning from the Book of Ruth

When I teach a course in Biblical Hebrew, I always base it on the Book of Ruth. Why? Because it’s a short book, uses simple and poetic language and is very down to earth. There are no miracles or divine appearances, no angels and no visions. It is about ordinary people, how they deal with hardship, their feelings of loyalty and love, and their customs and way of life.

Naomi and her husband and two sons left their hometown, Bethlehem (which means House of Bread) during a famine. They went to live in Moab, which was a different country, with different customs and ways of life. The sons married local women. But the family fell on bad luck. The husband and the two sons got sick and died, leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to go back to Bethlehem, because she has heard the famine was over. She suggests to her two daughters-in-law that they leave her and go find themselves some new husbands. One daughter-in-law agrees. But the second one – – Ruth – – decides to follow Naomi home. “Whither thou goest I shall go …” This is the best remembered line from the book and is sometimes quoted in a romantic context, but it was originally spoken by one woman to another.

So they go back to Bethlehem, where the barley harvest is currently in progress. And because they are poor and hungry, Ruth goes a-gleaning after the reapers. What is gleaning? That is actually what I want to talk about. It is a way to feed the poor that does not rob the rich.

And that’s what I really want to focus on here: not Ruth’s romantic encounter with Boaz, which occurs in the context of gleaning – but the context itself. The people who wrote this book of the Bible took it for granted that everybody hearing the story would know the customs of the times, but today we could gain a lot of perspective by reviewing them.

During the harvest, after all the bulk of the grain had been reaped, there were some grains left unharvested. If it were up to the wealthy landowners, these grains would simply go to waste. So the poor were allowed to come on the property and follow the reapers and pick up the left over, squandered grain. However much they gathered in a day was theirs to keep. They were even allowed to roast it and eat it on the spot. It made a good meal, because the grain contained fats, proteins and carbohydrates, enough to supply all the body’s needs. Nothing went to waste, and nobody lost anything by following this custom. The rich did not lose money, and the poor did not get rich, but those who really needed it got something to eat, without hurting anyone else. And they got it by their own efforts. They worked for it!

Notice that when Naomi came back to her hometown, nobody said she was a parasite. Nobody thought it was bad that she had left during a famine and came back when the harvest was good. Nobody tried to shame her. It is natural to leave your hometown during a famine. It is right to take your family to where there is plenty of food. You do not help anyone by sticking around and starving. But it is also natural that when things get better, people want to return home. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

The reason today so many supporters of the welfare state think it’s not okay to drop out of the system when it suits us and then drop back in when that seems right for us is because their system is based on taking from one person and granting another. But under gleaning, nobody was robbed in order to feed anyone else. Nobody exploited anyone else. And one person’s salvation did not come at a cost of another’s life. It was a win/win situation.

We don’t have to hate the rich to help the poor. And we need not despise the poor to save ourselves.That is what we can all glean from the Book of Ruth!


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