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Friday, December 19, 2014

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Signal and noise

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Watching an infant move from babble to speech, one can become entranced by the way humans acquire language. Goo and ga, moo and ma eventually become developed sounds, distinct words, short sentences and full conversations.

Children, born with the capacity to learn language, gain skills by listening and practising the words they hear. Over time, children distinguish between the confusing clatter of the world around them and meaningful signs, gestures and words intended to convey messages of significance. They learn the difference between signal and noise.

In communications science, signal-to-noise ratio compares the level of a desired signal to the amount of background noise. Signal-to-noise ratio also refers to the quantity of useful information in relation to extraneous, erroneous or intentionally false data transmitted via conversation or other forms of communication. If you have ever read online unfiltered reactions to newspaper columns or news bulletins, you know what noise can be.

Nate Silver, the author of The Signal and the Noise, became well known for developing a sophisticated algorithm to project player performance in baseball. More recently, Silver applied his methodology to politics. His blog correctly predicted the results in all fifty states in the last American presidential election. In his book, he comments, “The signal is the truth. The noise is the distraction.”

Writing about Silver’s book in the New York Times, Noam Schreiber notes: “Journalism is in a strange place these days. Cable and the Internet crippled the old media establishment; political polarization dealt it a death blow… The right-wing media speak only to true believers. Liberal journalists are often more fact-conscious, but equally partisan, while mainstream outlets have a rapidly dwindling audience. Few media institutions command widespread credibility.”

Notwithstanding many challenges, the The Canadian Jewish News resumes print publication. The CJN has widespread credibility. It is not perceived as speaking only to true believers. In the midst of so many online sources of immediate information, The CJN remains a reliable and steady filter, helping its readers to discern the signal from the noise.

There are so many claims on our attention and time. So much noise. The renewed print edition of The CJN will continue to provide thoughtful, balanced coverage of news essential to the Jewish community. As in the past, readers can expect a positive editorial approach to Israeli and Jewish life, with a willingness to engage in constructive criticism.

The core mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah may appear to be noise, but to the person that understands, it is a signal of spiritual significance. The sounds of the shofar summon us to reconsider our lives, reconfigure our actions, restore our bond with the Jewish people and return to a relationship with the Holy One.

After the shofar is sounded in synagogue, these words from Psalm 89 are recited: “Ashrei ha’am yode’ei shofar.” – “Blessed are the people that understand the shofar. They go forward with your light signal.”

As The CJN returns to print, pay attention. The CJN will remain an important way for Canadian Jews to understand our community. It is worthy of your support as a signal publication.           

— Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl

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