Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Goodbye 2009, Welcome 2010!

I am taking time this week to look back over the past year and forward to the next.

For me, 2009 was a good year. I proved to myself (and others) that I have leadership skills, serving as the President of my BNI Chapter for six months. I made the usual progress in developing my professional skills and contacts, taking on a variety of projects and attending several lectures, workshops and conferences. I continued developing my personal skills through reading, listening to podcasts and attending workshops.

It was a year of family events. My sister got married and had her first baby. At the wedding I met some of my relatives from both sides of the family. I got to know my new brother-in-law's family on several occasions. Then we had a holiday in England, and managed to meet many relatives from my mother's side of the family and Ivor's family.

Socially, I have reached a level of comfort in public that would have seemed out of reach a few years ago. Sometimes I still blush when speaking to strangers, but this no longer worries me. I spent time with several of my friends, including some Israeli friends who now live abroad and came to visit. I also renewed and strengthened my contacts with some of my foreign friends, sometimes through social networking sites, sometimes through simple email.

Culturally, I read many books, some of which I wrote about here. I enjoyed some new music, saw fewer films than in previous years, but visited more art exhibitions, also discussed in this blog. I also had my portrait taken.

In general, I have reached a high level of life satisfaction and contentment. I still have things I want to achieve, but from a desire for self-actualization rather than from any deep frustration with my current lifestyle.

Now, my plans for 2010 - not "resolutions", just plans. I will set up a website for my translation business. I hope to manage my time better and work more efficiently. I will get to know my new baby nephew, and spend more time with my parents, perhaps even travelling with them. I hope to have a holiday abroad again. I want to take more photographs. I hope to write more blog posts and increase my readership. Most importantly, I will work on my own writing projects.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Charles Stross - The Jennifer Morgue

Charles Stross, The Jennifer Morgue, Orbit, 2006.

Spoiler warning.

This book is set in the Laundry series, which started with The Atrocity Archive. Bob Howard, computational demonologist, is sent on another mission to save the human race from the horrors of the deep. He faces a stereotypical bad guy, software billionaire Ellis Billington, and the events take place in exotic locations. His partner on this mission, Ramona, turns out to have some surprising abilities, and their relationship develops some interesting complexities. Meanwhile, Mo has been training, and when she finds out what Bob is doing, she rushes to the rescue.

The story cleverly employs tropes from the James Bond world, and while some of them are obvious, I felt that I would have appreciated the work better had I been more familiar with the Bond books and films. Perhaps I am in a minority in not having watched any of the films (well, perhaps one, a long time ago). The story does work even without having any knowledge of the Bond themes, so readers who share my ignorance need not be put off.

The main twist of the plot was a satisfying surprise, though one of the loose ends resolved in the final chapters had occurred to me. The writing, humour and pacing were good, and the story was dark, exciting and entertaining. I have read several short stories in the Laundry series, and expect there will be further Laundry novels and stories to look forward to in years to come.

Friday, December 11, 2009

My portrait

My friend, artist, gallery owner and art conservationist, Michael Karo, has created a mixed-technique portrait of me. It started with a photograph of me in his gallery, which was then digitally processed and finally printed onto canvas and painted in oil paints. I was pleased with the final result, and the painting is now hanging in my living room.

The painting has a sense of space and light, and a relaxed, cheerful atmosphere. On the wall, it seems like a window into another room, with windows into the garden beyond, so it brings depth to the room in which it hangs.

I never expected to sit for a portrait, thinking that nowadays most people only have photographs taken. A few years ago, I started sitting for another friend who draws portraits from life, but for some reason she found it difficult and that attempt was never completed. I think this is a worthwhile experience for anyone who appreciates art, and I am grateful to have had this opportunity. Thanks, Michael!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

John Scalzi - The Last Colony

John Scalzi, The Last Colony, Tor, 2007.

Spoiler warning!

In this book, we join some of the characters familiar from the previous stories in the series, Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigade. John Perry and Jane Sagan have married, adopted Zoe Boutin, and settled on a colony world. Their life is changed when they are asked to become the leaders of a new colony.

The new colony of Roanoke is special, because it is colonized not by people from earth but by citizens of other colonies. When they arrive there, they discover that the colony is being used as a pawn in a complex game. The new colonists are forced to adapt to their new circumstances, while their leaders try to work out what is happening and what can be done about it. The challenges are both practical and ethical, with loyalty to the Colonial Union being questioned.

With each book in the series, the horizons of our knowledge about the universe expand. First we knew only what was known to a CDF soldier, then we learned more about the Special Forces and the power struggles between other races. This book gives a wider picture of the players in the colonization game. It seems likely that there will be many more stories told within this setting.

Having first read the later book, Zoe's Tale, I already knew what to expect in terms of the plot outline, but enjoyed revisiting the story from a different point of view. The dilemmas faced by the main characters were interesting, and the story here went on a little further. A comparison between the books in this series led me to conclude that Scalzi's writing improves over time, which bodes well for his future work.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Get a life!"

The phrase "get a life!" ultimately means "get a life like mine", and expresses contempt for something that is very important to someone. It is usually said when people tell someone about their interests, which the listener finds unworthy in some way - uncool or boring or too serious or not serious enough.

Most people think the way they are living is the best way to live, and that more people should be like them. But to imply that someone else's way of life is unworthy, and to negate or disrespect their interests, shows a high level of intolerance of difference.

The differences between people, both individual differences and the differences between groups and cultures, are what make life interesting (not always easy, but interesting). Tolerant people acknowledge that there are many ways to live a worthy human life. They can accept and respect different lifestyles, interests and behaviours.

People all have their chosen lives, and while some may seem less worthy, less healthy, less interesting or more trivial than yours, your reaction to them says more about you than about them. Being capable of accepting difference means you are stronger, more gracious and more certain of yourself than accusing others of not having a life.

Monday, November 30, 2009

John Scalzi - The Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades, Tor, 2006.

Spoiler warning!

This is the sequel to Old Man's War. It expands our understanding of the world presented in the first book, and presents a more multi-layered perspective.

On one level, it echos part of the story of Old Man's War, which described the training and combat activities of a CDF soldier. The story this time describes the origins, training and combat activities of a Special Forces soldier. To me, it was immediately obvious what the term "Ghost Brigades" meant when it was first mentioned in OMW. This level of the story provides a first-person report of what that experience is like.

On another level, the main character is not, or not entirely, what he believes himself to be. He has the memories of another person, which take a while to emerge into his consciousness. He finds that his whole existence is aimed at discovering these hidden memories and acting upon them.

Despite his unenviable origins, Jared Dirac becomes an interesting person in his own right, and serves his purpose in an unexpected way. The memories that rise up in him are those of a scientist, Charles Boutin, who has turned against the Colonial Union and plotted with other races. Unfortunately, he comes across as a caricature of a mad scientist type villain, despite efforts to explain his choices.

This is a story about identity and humanity. Can people created as super-human fighters, trained from inception for warfare and survival, become fully human? The answer here is a resounding "yes".

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Michael Chabon - Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road, Del Rey, 2007. Illustrated by Gary Gianni.

Spoiler warning!

This short novel tells the story of two Jewish mercenaries around the year 950 C.E. One is a former soldier of African descent, the other Western European with medical training. They embark on adventures in the Khazar Empire, a Jewish state in the Caucasus (about which little is known).

The story involves wars, elephants, an orphaned prince trying to reclaim the throne, and clashes between Jews, Moslems and Christians. It is a wide-ranging adventure story with insightful treatment of the main characters. There is a twist in the plot that makes it all the more interesting.

Chabon is a gifted writer, and the high literary style serves the story well. Each sentence is beautifully crafted, and the story-telling is masterful. The story is accompanied by charming illustrations, reminding readers that not only children's books can benefit from a visual interpretation.

Vernor Vinge - Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End, Tor, 2006.

Spoiler warning!

Poet Robert Gu is given a new lease of life. He emerges from the confusion of Alzheimer's healed and rejuvenated, in a teenage-looking body. But the world has changed while he was ill, and now he must learn how to use the new technology, so he goes back to school. He is helped by his young granddaughter Miri and some of his new school friends. As he adapts to his new situation, he realizes he has lost his gift for poetry, but acquired some technical skills. He also realizes that he used to be a selfish and nasty person and pushed away his family.

Meanwhile, we learn that a senior intelligence agent is planning to release a "You Gotta Believe Me" virus, which will brainwash the world's population. Several intelligence professionals are trying to prevent this from happening, but who can they trust?

The plot converges on a university library, where the books are shredded and then scanned. The library is restored as a VR version of its former physical self, with haptic feedback so users can feel the images they see. This raises questions about the importance of books. Readers will already be in one camp or the other (to some extent), depending on whether they are holding the dead-tree copy or reading an electronic version of the book. My own opinion is that no matter how we value our physical books, eventually most information will be purely digital. This makes sense in terms of saving the environment and more efficient usage of space. I still read most of my books in physical form, and have overburdened bookshelves. I expect to read an increasing proportion in electronic form in coming years. The content matters more than the form.

This is a complex, thought-provoking and entertaining work, with many levels and sub-plots. One that interested me was the fate of Robert's ex-wife, who is suffering from an incurable disease. The time will soon come when some medical conditions can be reversed and some people can be rejuvenated, but at first this will only be available to a few people, with particular diseases and enough money to afford it. The first to receive these treatments will be in an unenviable position. They will have to accept that some of their contemporaries will suffer and age and die, while they live on, perhaps for many more decades. They will be viewed with jealousy and perhaps feel survivors' guilt. Their life experience will become worthless in a rapidly changing society. This will be a transitional generation, and there will be many lessons to be learned before rejuvenation becomes universally available.

This is a story of ideas, but it also has interesting characters, a vividly depicted near future, a thrilling plot and moments of humour and emotion.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

New online SF magazine - Lightspeed

In this week's Sofanauts podcast, Tony C. Smith interviewed the two editors of a new online SF magazine to be published soon, Lightspeed. John Joseph Adams is the fiction editor, and Andrea Kail is the non-fiction editor.

Lightspeed will start publication in June 2010. It will publish exclusively SF stories, unlike most magazines (both online and printed) that also feature fantasy and sometimes also horror. New material will be available free on the website each week, but a monthly e-book will be available for purchase at the beginning of the month, for those who don't want to wait or prefer to get it all in one issue. At the end of each year there will be a printed fiction anthology collecting the short stories. There will also be a podcast, but the editors were unsure about the details of this.

One interesting feature is that the non-fiction articles are supposed to be related to the stories. This will provide some factual discussion of the science ideas mentioned in the stories. This combination seems to hark back to the times when science fiction was perceived as a way of providing the public with some science education.

Readers of this blog will know that I read a lot of SF novels. I also read and listen to short stories, both in Interzone magazine and in various online magazines and podcasts. I usually prefer novels, with their wider scope and greater depth, but short stories can also be thought provoking and inspiring, and I wouldn't like to see the short form disappear (as some people sometimes predict).

I find the announcing of a new short fiction magazine at this time encouraging, and hope their business model works out so they can live long and prosper! I look forward to reading Lightspeed when it arrives.

Saving electricity and water

Two initiatives have been announced here recently, aimed at encouraging people to use less water and electricity. Israel has a serious water shortage, and water could be a reason for war in our region in coming years. Israel is also near its capacity for electricity production, and plans to set up new power stations, using gas rather than coal, keep being delayed.

The first plan is a "drought levy" on water usage over a certain level, determined according to the number of people in each household. Everyone has had to declare how many people live in their household. Some friends of ours declared their dog, but we didn't list our cats, since they drink negligible quantities of water and don't use water to bathe... This levy is supposed to apply mainly to families with gardens, and we don't expect we'll have to pay it. However, it has been very controversial, and there is now a plan to postpone it until April, but to raise the basic cost of water significantly over the next few months, so in the end everyone will be paying more. I just wonder why they are targeting home users while still giving much lower water rates to agriculture and industry. I think efficient water usage should also be encouraged in these sectors. One of the aims of this levy is to raise funds to build desalination plants, which should have been done years ago. I hope to see this achieved soon.

The second plan means that households that manage to reduce their electricity consumption by 20% over the winter will receive an additional 20% discount to their electricity bill. The newspapers published some recommendations on how to reduce electricity consumption. These include using energy efficient light bulbs, not leaving equipment on stand-by mode, and so on.

Many of the things people are now being encouraged to do to save water and electricity are things we have always done. We have never had a dish washer or a dryer, and have always washed dishes by hand and dried clothes on the washing line (and on the few rainy days, indoors on a clothes horse). I always use the washing machine on a low temperature and a short program. Of course, we always turn off lights in rooms we're not using. We also keep our use of the air conditioner to the bare minimum. Most of the cooking is on the gas stove rather than using the electric oven. We have always had dual-quantity flushing toilets to save water.

These new plans make us feel a bit like the prodigal son - we are now not going to receive the benefits that people who were wasteful all these years will receive if they start doing what we have always done. On the other hand, we know we have been doing the right thing all along, and that is its own reward.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Alastair Reyonlds - The Prefect

Alastair Reynolds, The Prefect, Gollancz, 2007.

This novel is a stand-alone story set in the same universe as the author's previous novels, Chasm City, Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. I haven't written here about these books, and will do so in the future when I re-read them, but they are among my favourite books and I highly recommend them. I was also thrilled to hear recently that Reynolds has received a contract for his next ten books, to be written during the next decade, worth one million pounds. As a reader of all his published books, I consider him worthy of this sort of financial security, and look forward to his next books.

The Prefect is set in the Glitter Band, a society occupying thousands of habitats orbiting the planet of Yellowstone. The political structure is a demarchy, where citizens can vote on all public issues. They are constantly online and connected to the system through their nanotech implants.

The protagonist is Tom Dreyfus, a Prefect in the Panoply, a sort of police force responsible for maintaining the demarchy. Along with his deputies, Thalia Ng (an expert programmer) and Sparver (a hyperpig), he investigates an attempt to overthrow the demarchy and form a dictatorship. The plot thickens and involves members of the various groups readers encountered in the previous books: the space faring Ultras and the advanced, almost post-human, Conjoiners. There are also the familiar themes of beta-level simulations of human consciousnesses and advanced AIs. A grim future has been predicted for the Glitter Band (which readers of the other books understand), and the misguided attempts to avert it create new risks.

Reynolds excels at creating a vivid, rich and convincing setting, and I enjoy the time I spend in his universe. This novel fills a gap in the chronology of the previous works in the series, and although it can be read alone, readers already familiar with the other stories will appreciate many aspects that new readers might miss. The characters are sympathetic, the story maintains its tension and reaches a satisfying conclusion which is not really an end, since the universe continues developing in the ways readers can see in the other books.

My recommendation to readers is to read all the novels more or less in order of publication.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

StarShipSofa Stories Volume One

Tony C. Smith (ed.), StarShipSofa Stories, volume one, 2009.

Available in several hard cover and paperback formats from print-on-demand sites and also as a free e-book.

One of my favourite podcasts, StarShipSofa (available on iTunes), has brought out an anthology of 15 stories that have been narrated on the podcast.

StarShipSofa is a weekly science fiction magazine. Each podcast features an editorial, a poem, flash fiction, short fiction and various fact articles. It is presented by Tony C. Smith, whose Newcastle accent takes some getting used to. His charm and enthusiasm pervade the entire podcast, and especially its sibling-podcast, the Sofanauts, a weekly science fiction round table, where Tony discusses SF issues with two or three guests.

This volume contains a varied selection from the stories featured in the podcast. It is designed to look like a pulp-era SF magazine, and contains images of old advertisements. The attention devoted to the visual aspects of the volume complements the quality of the writing, making the book into more than just a short story collection. It has character.

I won't review the various stories here. Some of them I have heard on the podcast, while others were probably featured before I started subscribing. The wide range of styles and subject matter means that there should be something for everyone, and this book could serve as a good introduction to short SF for new readers.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Further thoughts on gender

After the Jasmine conference last week, where there was much discussion of the social and psychological barriers to women's equal participation in the economy, I have been thinking about the spectrum of attitudes towards women in different societies.

At one end is the sort of paternalistic, or patronizing, consideration displayed by the old-fashioned English gentleman. The behaviour displayed includes opening doors for women, helping them with their coats, walking in front of them down the stairs, or behind them up the stairs, in case they fall, and walking on the side closer to the street so they don't get splashed by passing vehicles. The assumption behind these behaviours and others is that women are weak and vulnerable and deserve protection and assistance. Some of these specific behaviours may have arisen when women wore really unpractical clothing - or alternatively, they were able to adopt such clothing knowing that they would be given this sort of assistance and not expected to move as freely and confidently as men.

At the opposite pole is the macho attitude, where women exist to serve men. This approach is prevalent in societies that take for granted that men are superior, and women's inferiority is no reason to be considerate towards them. Men can comfortably expect women to take care of their needs.

It seems to me that it's easier to reach equality from the considerate but patronizing attitude than from the male superiority assumption. It seems that the assumption of male superiority can lead to either the sort of generous consideration displayed in the first type, or to contempt and exploitation, as in the second type of society. The generosity is probably why western societies have achieved greater equality, moving from protecting and respecting women to treating them more as equals, while the more traditional macho approaches are still deeply entrenched in large sectors of Israeli society, for example.

Here in Israel, I am aware that many men can express sexist opinions without fear of criticism (for example, regarding women drivers), and the emphasis on the importance of families does hold back many women's careers.

Personally, I try not to make this the focus of my attention, and just get on with my own life. Being self-employed means I don't have to deal with the stresses of the work place, with the potential for sexual harassment and the problem of unequal pay for males and females doing the same job.

It seems to me that people with full confidence in themselves and their place in the world are free to treat all others equally, with respect (unless this proves misplaced) and with consideration. The people who feel superior and therefore have to treat others (women, minorities or anyone different) with contempt are just compensating for deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. A man who feels superior to women just because he has an XY chromosome (like 49% of the population), rather than feeling fully confident of his own individual self, is missing something.

Ultimately, I would like to think that the individual differences between people are more important than their gender.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

John Scalzi - Old Man's War

John Scalzi, Old Man's War, Tor, 2005.

Spoiler warning!

Imagine a future where the human race must compete and fight with other species for planets to colonize. The Colonial Union takes colonists from third-world countries, and recruits soldiers from wealthy countries. But these are no ordinary soldiers. The recruits are all 75 years old, and they volunteer for ten years' service in exchange for the chance of a new lease of life as a colonist afterwards.

The story follows John Perry, who joins the Colonial Defense Force at 75. He is taken to a space station, where his consciousness is transferred into a new, improved, young body, cloned from his own DNA, but with some significant changes. He is now stronger, faster, and green-skinned. He goes through basic training and then fights in various battles, gradually learning more about the wider reality beyond earth.

The story is told from a military point of view, where there is no choice but to fight the enemy. This black-and-white attitude may upset some readers, but has to be taken as part of the world-building of this series. In one case, diplomacy is attempted with disastrous results. The life and experience Perry had on earth is hardly relevant to his life as a soldier.

Questions of identity are raised, but not answered: If you are given a new body, and your memories, experience and personality are no longer relevant to your new life, where you must change and adapt to new circumstances, and you can never return to your home planet, then in what way are you still the same person?

I have already read one of the later books in this series, Zoe's Tale, and now plan to read the next two. The only thing that bothers me in my reading of the series so far is the relative paucity of visual descriptions. The many alien species are given a few key features, but not enough to imagine them clearly in my mind.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Jasmine conference for business women

On November 4, 2009, I attended the annual conference of Jasmine, the Association of Businesswomen in Israel . Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I also attended this event last year. It was held at the Dan Carmel hotel here in Haifa, the conference venue I have been to more times than any other hotel.

The conference was presented by journalist Iman Elqasem Suliman, who introduced the speakers and made announcements in Hebrew, Arabic and sometimes English, very competently and calmly, even when there were changes to the schedule.

The morning started later than scheduled. First there were thanks to the sponsors and organizers of the event and of Jasmine, including the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and Bezeq, Israel's largest telecommunications company. Particularly interesting among the opening comments were some statistics quoted by Dr. Lars Hansel of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. He spoke briefly about the importance of the growing role of women in politics, particularly relevant for Germany, where the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is female. He noted that among countries with elected parliaments, ten have no female members of parliament, and fifty have 10-15% female representatives. In the Arab states there are 9-10% women, and in Israel 15%.

Then there was a panel about small and medium-sized businesses in Israel. The panel was led by former MK Nadia Hilou (who also spoke at last year's event). She mentioned a government debate last week that focuses on small business and the employment of women, and also noted that the Minister of Minorities, MK Avishay Braverman, is investing in promoting women's employment in the minority sectors. Then Hilou interviewed the panel members.

Galit Hemi, editor of Calcalist, one of Israel's leading daily economics newspapers, spoke about the problems of under-reporting of both small businesses and business women in the media, and stated that she supported positive discrimination in order to increase the media exposure of both sectors.

Dalit Raviv from Bank Hapoalim, Israel's second largest bank, spoke about the increasing role of women in banking. 70% of Bank Hapoalim's staff are female, but only 50% of management level staff, and only 30% of board members are women. In the banking sector in Israel, there are two female CEOs of large banks, who are among Israel's most influential business people.

Daniel Mazliah from the Israel Small and Medium Enterprises Authority spoke of the suitability of entrepreneurship for women, since they can work at something they love, enjoy flexible work hours and work from home.

Iman Sef from the Arab Sector Economic Development Authority described plans to invest in business projects of Arab women. A new fund is being set up to support businesses in the Arab sector, with a fund of NIS 160 million, half from the Authority and half from private investors. He also announced plans to require Israeli government tenders to guarantee fair representation of the Arab sector.

After this panel, there was a presentation by Tareq Bashir, manager of the Sulam Loan Fund, on obtaining loans. He noted that the Arab sector has difficulty in getting credit, and presented the Sulam Loan Fund, aimed specifically at businesses owned by Arab entrepreneurs, or by a 50-50 partnership of Arab and Jewish business people.

Nissim Douek of Unik spoke about public relations and how to promote businesses and products. Then Yair Carmel of Agent Interactive spoke about Internet marketing. Unfortunately, as time was short, he was given less time than originally scheduled, but managed to provide useful information about promoting websites and search engine optimization.

Then we had lunch. Even though the conference was already behind schedule, the lunch break took longer than expected and it was difficult to get participants back into the lecture hall.

The afternoon session started with some success stories. Sara Shemer, founder of the Arcaffe chain of coffee shops, described how she applied what she termed "female values" of quality, relationship with customers, intuition and creativity, into her business model, and hoped that women would introduce new management styles instead of adapting to the existing "masculine" model. Liat Timor, a journalist and editor in Maariv, suggested it was important to start with one product, but make it the best product possible. Three short films about women's success stories were screened, including the story of Iman Zuebi, owner of the Al-Mutran guest house in Nazareth, who spoke last year.

The organizers then launched the new Jasmine portal, a website covering all the activities and services of Jasmine, where members can build their own mini-sites. Since many businesses in Israel still have no websites, the provision of this free service to Jasmine members is very useful, and I plan to build my own mini-site there soon.

The main panel of the afternoon included Jasmine president
Ofra Strauss, Chair of Strauss-Elite, Israel's second largest food company, the VIP guest Cherie Blair, in her capacity as founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and Rim Younis of Alpha Omega, a Nazareth-based company producing electrodes and neuroscience technology. This panel was conducted in English, and simultaneous interpreting into Hebrew and Arabic was available. The presenter was television anchorwoman Dana Weiss of Channel Two television.

Cherie Blair mentioned the current economic crisis, and hinted that it was caused mainly by men. She then spoke about the importance of women for the world's economy. She noted that 70% of illiterate people are female, and 70% of children who do not attend school are girls. Women are always among the poorest people. The aim of her foundation is to change this situation. She mentioned a recent statistic, that Israel is in the 45th place out of 130 countries in the gender equality ranking. The barriers facing women include: not receiving equal pay, low representation on boards of directors (only 10% in Europe), and low political representation. The keys to changing women's role: education, economic participation, confidence, supportive partners and children. She also noted that men are changing too.

Ofra Strauss spoke next, explaining that women in the work place are a global issue, and focusing on diversity in businesses. Although her company, Strauss, is one of the largest in Israel, she is a supporter of women setting up small businesses and considers this to be one way of overcoming the recession. She said, interestingly, that women's employment is important for men, so that both partners in a relationship are equally responsible for supporting the family.

Rim Younis seemed nervous to be in the company of these famous women, but spoke passionately about the importance of following one's dreams and the support she received from her family. She noted that the traditional extended family in Arab society can be an advantage to business women, as there will always be someone available to help with the children.

When this panel finished, there was a rush of reporters to photograph Cherie Blair and Ofra Strauss with some of the other participants, and this delayed the start of the final lecture.

Hava Doron of Copyhouse explained how participants could build their mini-sites on the Jasmine portal. Unfortunately, there were a few technical problems with the presentation, and some people had to leave as the conference was already running late.

During the conference, there was a trade fair in another room, with stalls presenting some of the businesses, mainly those related to arts and crafts. These included jewellery, natural toiletries, basket weaving, fabric weaving, bags and various artists.

Participants in the conference received, in addition to user names and passwords for the free mini-site on the portal, a free book written in both Hebrew and Arabic about setting up a business, with very useful practical information and also success stories to inspire the readers.

Unlike last year's conference, when the schedule was changed by many cancellations, this time there was only one cancellation of a planned speaker, the Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour, MK Binyamin Ben Eliezer.

The conference suffered from delays in the schedule, which was somewhat unprofessional and forced some speakers to cut their presentations short. One reason for this was that many participants were more interested in networking than in the lectures. The seating arrangement, around round tables, encouraged people to talk during the lectures, and there was an almost constant buzz of background conversation and of other people trying to silence it. Some people kept their phones on, which was annoying. Also, despite the provision of simultaneous interpreting during the English panel (into both Hebrew and Arabic), very few people took the headphones, and many seemed to rely on their neighbours at the tables to explain what was being said, which I considered rude both to the speakers and to the interpreters (one of whom was a personal friend), as well as contributing to the background noise level.

I believe that future conferences could be better organized in several ways. First, the seating in the lecture hall should be in rows facing the stage rather than around tables (though, admittedly, the table seating made it easier to take notes). This would contribute to the audience concentrating on the lectures. There could be different sessions aimed at new businesses and at more experienced business women. Also, since there seems to be a great need and desire for networking, there should be structured networking sessions conducted in another room. The organizers should make every effort to start on time, and to get the audience back into the room after breaks on time.

I enjoyed this conference and found it more useful than last year's event. I will read the book I received and set up my mini-site. I look forward to seeing how Jasmine develops over the coming years.

Update (November 23, 2009): Here's a short video clip about the conference.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Holiday in England - Guildford

One of the places we visited during our holiday was Guildford, a town I knew a little from previous visits. It is a pleasant town, with a river (the Wey), hills and trees. I remember several shopping trips here with my family, and there is a thriving town centre.

We visited Guildford Tower, and climbed up the Great Tower. This was part of the 12th century castle, and was in use until the 17th century. The site has recently been restored, and there is a small museum on the ground floor. From the tower there are views of the town and its surroundings in all directions, but the day we visited it was a bit hazy.

We then did some shopping in the town centre. One thing I noticed, which surprised me, was a whole section in a bookshop devoted to "Tragic Life Stories". Most of the books seemed to be from the same publisher. I hadn't noticed such a section in other bookshops we visited during our trip (and we went in bookshops at every opportunity), and I don't know if such a section was particularly aimed at a Guildford taste in books... I then looked around for a section on "Positive, Uplifting Stories of Success", but couldn't find one!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Richard Wiseman - 59 Seconds

Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds, Macmillan, 2009.

[The US version will be published in January 2010].

This book aims to examine some common self-help myths from a scientific point of view, and find out which methods are proven to work.

The self-help industry is growing in popularity, and some of its advice is ineffective, or even harmful. Wiseman, a psychologist, decided to research scientific studies and find some self-help methods that are proven to work. The aim was to provide quick and easy methods people could apply in less than a minute.

The book covers several important areas, including happiness, motivation, stress, decision making and parenting. Each section examines the prevalent methods and suggests effective, proven self-help methods.

It is worth reading the whole book, and then later dipping into it to find ideas relevant to your current situation. For example, the chapter on motivation is useful for people trying to change their habits.

One of the interesting tips I learned from this book is to visualize myself doing the steps required to reach my goals, rather than just imagine myself having achieved these goals. It seems to be important to break goals down into steps, and then get used to the idea of taking these practical steps, rather than just think about the objective you are trying to reach, which may be quite remote and abstract.

Another important conclusion was that parents would do better to praise children for the effort they put into a task, rather than for the outcome of that task. This ensures the children will continue to strive to succeed, no matter what the result, instead of assuming that since they have already been successful, they no longer need to try so hard.

The book is written in a chatty style, and is aimed for the general public, including readers who wouldn't normally read psychological research. It contains a lot of positive advice, with explanations of why this advice works.

One small thing: I wonder why the author (or maybe the publisher) chose to have his name on the cover as "Professor Richard Wiseman". This is quite rare, and most academics I know don't feel the need to stress their titles. Perhaps this emphasizes his professional expertise, as opposed to the authors of some self-help books. However, being a professor is no guarantee of scientific excellence, and I found it a bit strange.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Holiday in England - Stonehenge and Neolithic sites

Towards the end of our holiday, my sister-in-law Jill took us on another of her tours. We got up early for the early morning special access to Stonehenge. They allow a small number of visitors to get close to the stones (but you are not supposed to touch them), between 0630 and 0730. We were hoping to see the sunrise, but it was rather overcast. Despite being warned that many people are disappointed when they see how small the stone circle is, I found its size to be appropriate. The stones are just large enough to inspire awe, but the proportions are still human enough. I have not studied the subject enough to express an opinion about the site's function, and I don't mind leaving it as a mystery in my mind.

From Stonehenge we went to another ancient stone circle site at Avebury. Here there was a large stone circle with two smaller circles inside (not concentric). The village of Avebury is located among the remains of the circles. We arrived early, and wandered among the stones, accompanied by grazing sheep. We waited for the museum to open, and visited a local gift shop with a new-age feel to it. We saw a group of people who seemed to be Neo-Druids, perhaps intending to conduct some ritual on what they consider a sacred site.

Then we visited the nearby West Kennet Avenue, consisting of two parallel lines of standing stones. This site is right next to the road, and the lines of stones extend for a long distance.

From there we drove past Silbury Hill, a prehistoric 40-meter high artificial mound of uncertain purpose. It looks clearly man-made.

We arrived at the nearby West Kennet Long Barrow, an ancient tomb. The walk to this site was a pleasant stroll across the fields, as the day grew warmer.

After this, we visited another ancient barrow, Wayland's Smithy. This was quite a way from the road, but despite the warm weather, we enjoyed the walk along a country lane.

Then we saw the nearby Uffington White Horse, an ancient horse figure carved into the chalk on the hillside. This is the oldest white horse. It doesn't seem to have been intended to be viewed from the ground, and the best pictures are taken from the air.

This tour showed us some of the best ancient sites of southern England, which remain mysterious and intriguing. I enjoy visiting ancient remains because it gives me a sense of the depth of human history. I like standing where people of different cultures once lived, and wondering about their different understanding of the world.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Iain M. Banks - The Player of Games

Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games, Orbit, 1988.

Spoiler warning!

This book is one of the early Culture novels. It tells the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a master game player seeking new challenges. He is recruited by Contact to play the game of Azad, a complicated game that determines the fate of the Empire of Azad. The theme of life as a game is explored here. While people often think that politics or business or relationships are like a game, in Azad this is formalized, and the skills people deploy in playing the game determine their careers.

Another interesting aspect of the story is that the people of Azad have three genders, described as male, apex and female. For Culture citizens, the idea of people's gender having relevance to social status is alien, so Gurgeh has to adjust not just to the differing biology of people in Azad, but to the new concept of social classes.

Not surprisingly, Gurgeh's role is not quite what he was led to believe, and Contact has its own agenda. The secret identity of one of the characters was obvious to me quite early on (but this didn't detract from my enjoyment).

This story showed one of the problems of the utopian Culture: boredom. When people have their basic needs fulfilled and are free to do whatever they want, they have so many choices. To find a satisfying way to occupy yourself in such a society must be challenging. People specialize in their areas of interest, and some of them teach others. The description of how Gurgeh becomes totally absorbed in the game and focused on it, almost to the exclusion of all other thoughts, for hours or days on end, reflects the concept of "flow", used in positive psychology. This is how we should all aim to spend our working or playing hours.

Another rather obvious aspect of the story is the way the player is being used as a pawn in a larger game. Ultimately, Contact and Special Circumstances are much more experienced and sophisticated players than any individual, and the stakes are much higher.

I enjoyed this novel, and it could serve as a good introduction to the Culture series for new readers.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Haifa painted by local artists - exhibition 2

This week I visited the second part of the exhibition "Haifa from Here" at the Karo Arts Gallery. Like the previous exhibition, it featured paintings of Haifa by local artists. This time, the paintings were in the expressive and impressionistic styles, in contrast to the more realistic paintings of the first show. Also, this exhibition did not feature only immigrant artists, and this time there were also native Israeli painters.

Baruch Elichai is a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, and taught art in the Reali high school in Haifa for many years until retirement. He won the Herman Struck Prize, and has had many exhibitions around the world. He has also worked as a stage set designer and illustrator. This impressionistic painting of boats in the port features the shades of blue sea and sky that make life in Haifa so vivid.

Dan Livni, another Bezalel graduate, also studied in St. Martin School, London, and at the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. He taught art in Ironi H high school and Gordon College in Haifa. This painting shows a view of Haifa from the sea, looking up the slopes of the Carmel, in a rather naive style. I like the contrast between the bold shades of blue and green and the pale, washed-out look of the buildings and boats in the sunlight.

Victor Lifkin was born in Moscow in 1961, studied art at Moscow University, and immigrated to Israel in 1991. He has had many exhibitions and won four international awards. He is a member of Unesco's International Artists group. Here is another picture of boats, in a very different style. The two towers on the hilltop are the Dan Panorama hotel, a familiar Haifa landmark.

The Impressionist artist Robert Rosenberg studied in Alma Ata, and immigrated to Israel from Kazakhstan in 1994. His painting of Haifa at night is a view from the north, looking across the bay at the Carmel. Some of the smoke and flames from the factories north of the bay are visible. This painting seemed to me less representative of Haifa, though the industrial aspect of the city is certainly a subject worth representing in art.

Anat Steindler-Shacham was born in Haifa in 1971, and studied art at the Royal College of Art in London. Her triptych shows a view of the Haifa skyline and sea, with the forest trees and houses. This is the sort of view seen from many places up on the Carmel. It reflects a sense of expanse provided by wide horizons and the layering of the elements (earth, water, air).

Ahuva Sherman was born in Tel Aviv and lives in Haifa. She is inspired by local landscapes. This impressionistic view of Haifa streets and buildings has warm, dusty, sun-faded colours, and captures something of the nature of the city built up the slopes of the Carmel. The way the houses seem to crowd over each other, with windows overlooking their neighbours' roofs, is a typical reflection of Haifa. The light in this painting seems to reflect the warm, humid and muggy atmosphere of a summer day.

Dr. Sergei Schnizer is a physician and scientist, born in Moscow in 1964. He specializes in digital paintings based on his photography. This work shows the contrasts in Haifa, with the old house, with its natural colours and shapes, overshadowed by the new, modern, stylized office building (often known as the "sail building" or the "missile building"), which houses many government offices in the downtown part of Haifa near the port. Another part of Haifa's character is captured here. The buildings are framed by the blue sky and green and dry vegetation, and the sea can be glimpsed on the right. The blurring technique makes the view appear to be seen through hazy humidity, or perhaps from a fast-moving vehicle.

The exhibition can be seen at Karo Arts Gallery, 19 Jerusalem street, Haifa, though it closes tomorrow, on October 16, 2009. I hope to see future exhibitions earlier, so I can report on them with more time still left until they close.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Holiday in England - Hampshire, Jane Austen Country

My sister-in-law Jill is starting a new business as a tour guide. She intends to take small groups on tours that are slightly different from the large coach tours. We volunteered to be a test group, and went on two of her tours during our holiday in September.

The first was a tour in the footsteps of Jane Austen, one of England's greatest authors. The county of Hampshire seems to be promoting itself as her home, with road signs saying: "Welcome to Hampshire, Jane Austen Country".

The tour started at the church in Steventon, where Jane's father, and later her brother, served as Rector. Jane must have spent a lot of time there in her early years. The nearby family home was demolished. This small, simple church was impressive in its own way, and the surrounding villages are pretty, with some thatched cottages.

Then we went to Winchester, where Jane lived during her final months. She received medical care for her illness, believed to be either Addison's disease or Hodgkin's Lymphoma. She died at the age of 41, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. We saw her tombstone in the floor, and a plaque on the wall, but interestingly, neither mention her being a famous author.

The Cathedral is interesting for other reasons, too. The West Window was destroyed during the Civil War, and later the glass pieces were put back together, though not in the original order, so there is a random pattern made out of the pieces that originally held pictures. Faces and hands can be seen here and there. There are also some chests containing the remains of early bishops, kings and a queen.

Then we visited Jane's house in Chawton, where she spent much of her adult life, with her mother and sister. It is now open as a museum, containing objects belonging to Jane and her family, period items and costumes, and many editions of her books. The house seemed comfortable and it was easy to imagine Jane living and writing there, taking her meals and sitting in the garden. The household items and costumes of this period are very familiar from the many films and television adaptations of Jane's novels. One surprise for me was that the gift shop contained items bearing the picture of actor Colin Firth, who played Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC series of Pride and Prejudice. While I enjoyed this series, and realize that it introduced many people to Jane Austen for the first time, and while I also appreciate Colin Firth, I found the use of his image to promote a museum devoted to the author who created a character he played rather strange. After all, Jane Austen never saw him and may not have imagined Darcy in this way...

This was the only day of rain during our holiday, but this didn't detract from our enjoyment of the tour. In some ways, rainy weather seems "typically English", and it felt appropriate.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Charles Stross - Saturn's Children

Charles Stross, Saturn's Children, Orbit, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

The back-story of this novel is interesting in itself. Humans constructed self-aware artificial intelligences and used them to help explore the solar system. Some were installed in humanoid forms, but most had non-humanoid bodies. While all this was happening, humans were going extinct. Somehow, this was only realized when it was too late to prevent, and so the solar system was left to the sentient robots after all the humans had died out.

This is the story of Freya, living two centuries after the last humans died. She was constructed as a sort of robot geisha, and idea that is disturbing in some ways. She is programmed to be attracted to humans, and would be unable to resist any man who found her attractive. Her existence in a world where she cannot fulfil her programmed mission is obviously frustrating.

All the robots are descended from the patterns of their original "parent" models, and differentiate from each other only with experience. Freya has a complex relationship with her "sisters". She is recruited to serve as a courier, and gradually realizes that she is playing a role in a much larger game. There is a struggle between two factions, one of which is attempting to recreate human beings from cell samples in the hope of controlling other robots using the humans' power over them. Freya is in the faction attempting to prevent this, realizing that the return of humans would mean the enslavement of all robots. Despite being programmed to serve, Freya values her freedom even more highly than the satisfaction of fulfilling her function.

The main theme of this book is freedom and free will. The robots are free only because their "masters" no longer exist to exert the control that has been programmed into them. At the same time, there is a "slave override" that can be placed onto anyone, and in this way some robots control others. The story raises questions of human free will. To what extent are we humans fated to follow a predetermined destiny? For example, some humans seem to be just as slavishly controlled by sexual attraction as the robot who was programmed for this function.

Throughout the story, all the characters seem realistic and it is sometimes hard to remember that they are not actually human (in fact, the word robot is avoided and considered a swear word). At times, when the reader remembers that this is a universe with no human life left in it, this feels painful and sad. At the same time, the people who populate the solar system are very human-like, which is not surprising for our artificial descendants. They can display the same sort of selfish, short-sighted and sometimes cruel and manipulative behaviour as humans. Ultimately, it seems not to matter that they are manufactured rather than born.

We follow Freya's adventure, and her integrated memories of the adventures of her sister, Juliette. She travels among the planets, and the story necessarily takes a long time to unfold, since space travel is slow (and boring and sometimes painful, as described). She has allies and enemies, fights and escapes. As many first-person narrators tend to be, she is a bit slow on the uptake, enabling things to be explained to her for the reader's benefit. I knew, long before Freya did, the identity of one key character. This sort of writing is aimed at making the reader feel more intelligent than the character, which can be a cheap trick, but in this case it felt consistent with the rest of the character's personality.

This book was both entertaining and thought-provoking. It can be read on different levels, with more serious readers working through the moral implications of free will, slavery, and the equality of artificial minds.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Proms in the Park

On September 12, 2009, we went with my sister-in-law Heather to the Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park. This is an annual event, with open air concerts followed by screens showing live performances from the Royal Albert Hall.

The weather was perfect, with a warm afternoon and pleasant evening, and with clear skies so we could see some stars (despite the London light pollution), and the planes flying overhead. There were around 40,000 people in the park, and it was well organized. People sat around in groups, enjoying their picnics, many of them drinking. There were people of all ages, though not many children, and from several countries (based on languages heard and flags displayed).

The event opened with three tribute groups, demonstrating the most sincere form of flattery. The Counterfeit Stones (performing Rolling Stones material), the Emperors of Soul (Motown songs), and Gary Mullen and The Works (Queen). Of these, I most appreciated the latter, partly because I'm more familiar with Queen material.

As it began to get dark, the BBC Concert Orchestra played and we heard the singers Garoar Thor Cortes and Katherine Jenkins.

Then the quartet of young classical musicians, Escala, performed three songs. Finally, there was a concert by Barry Manilow, which was far removed from my musical taste. Obviously, a large part of the audience was there especially for this show, and there was a lot of dancing and singing along.

It was nearly ten by the time the live relay from the Royal Albert Hall started. We heard the usual list of rousing patriotic material, and the crowds sang along and waved their flags. I felt ambiguous about this. To me, music is universal and should unite the world. Of course, it can be used to reflect or arouse nationalistic sentiment, but to me this seems somewhat unnecessary. On the other hand, this event was somewhat self-consciously ironic and very good natured. It wasn't the sort of nationalism that could make outsiders feel unwelcome. In fact, the conductor at the Royal Albert Hall was an American, David Robertson.

The event finished with fireworks, and we managed to get out through the crowds, catch a taxi to the station and get the last train back to Kent.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Holiday in England - Kent and the South-East

Here are some of the places we visited during our trip to England this September:

Appledene Alpacas, Marden, Kent: This farm raises alpacas for their wool. This is a relatively new branch of farming in England. It was interesting to see these non-native animals in the very English Kent countryside. They seem to have adapted well, and the future of such farms will depend on the demand for alpaca wool.

Teapot Island, Yalding, Kent: A collection of teapots (very typically English!), with a cafe by the riverside. The setting was attractive, and we walked along the river and crossed a medieval bridge.

Chiddingstone Castle, Edenbridge, Kent: This attractive castle contains the antiquities collections of its former owner, Denys Eyre Bower. These include Egyptian, Japanese and Chinese artifacts. There was also a room dedicated to Bower's life. The castle grounds were also worth exploring.

We visited a relative Ramsgate, Kent, a seaside town on the East coast, and then visited nearby Margate, Kent, which used to be a holiday resort and is now rather run-down and sad. There are still some amusement arcades with slot machines, which seem outdated compared with modern computer games. The beach was full of seaweed, and there were lots of seagulls.

Another trip took us to Lewes, Sussex, then down to Brighton, Sussex. We ate lunch there, but didn't stay long due to the high cost of parking. This seems to be a town worth visiting by train. We saw, in passing, the Royal Pavilion, the promenade and the Brighton Pier.

Some of the best places to eat in England at the moment are the country pubs, which sometimes offer cuisine to rival urban restaurants. They often use local ingredients, supporting the area's farmers. One of the best examples we visited was The Dirty Habit, Hollingbourne, Kent, which took its double-entendre name partly from the habits of monks, as it had been a pilgrim's inn since the 13th century.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Leonard Cohen - Live in Ramat Gan

On Thursday, September 24, 2009, I went to see Leonard Cohen's live concert at the Ramat Gan Stadium. This concert was one of the most anticipated shows in Israel this year, and the 50,000 tickets sold out on the first day of sales. We sat opposite the stage, but a long way back from it, so while the stage itself seemed small, we had a clear view of the screens. The sound was perfect. The concert started on time and lasted 3 hours, with a 30-minute break.

The song list was very similar to that of the CD "Live in London", with almost all the songs, in much the same order, and the same arrangements. However, hearing them live was a much more vivid experience than listening to any recording. For me, the highlights were my favourite Cohen songs, "Who By Fire" and "Lover Lover", which I have known since childhood. Cohen sung expressively, and seemed to enjoy himself. His musicians and singers were outstanding, and the entire show was professional, moving and impressive. Even the weather was perfect, with a pleasant temperature and slight breeze.

For me, Cohen has always been a singer I appreciated, though not one I often played. I was happy when I heard his songs at other people's homes, or on the radio. In this respect, my attitude to his music is like my appreciation of classical music. I also think my early exposure to his work was formative, and that some of the artists I like today have some similarities to his style. I have always admired his writing, with lyrics expressing the passion, the spirituality and the complexity of relationships, and sometimes including Jewish themes, which always resonate with the Israeli audience.

The practical arrangements for the concert, however, were less perfect. Parking was difficult, even for those who arrived early. There were long queues at the gates, and for the toilets. I think the organizers should have provided additional portable toilets, instead of relying on the insufficient facilities of the stadium. During the concert people smoked, which bothered me, but I know that it would be difficult to enforce a smoking ban in an open-air venue. At the end of the concert there were traffic jams.

It has been reported that Cohen will donate the proceeds from the concert, about $2 million, to a new charity he has set up, the Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Peace. Some of the proceeds will be given to existing bodies: the Parents Circle-Families Forum, the Palestinian Center of Research and Information, Radio Kol HaShalom, and Saving the Children - Peres Center for Peace. During the concert he spoke touchingly about the work of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of bereaved Jewish and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones in the conflict and are working together through their mutual understanding of the price they have paid. He has called on other performing artists to donate the proceeds of one of their concerts from each tour to this new fund.

I really enjoyed the concert, and it was worth waiting for.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Impressions of England - part two

I have now returned home from my holiday in England. I found it more difficult to blog from my relatives' computers than I had expected, for various reasons, so now I have a lot of catching up to do. In the next few days, I hope to describe the places I visited and the experiences I had.

I spent much of the holiday observing people, and thinking about the balance between the two truths: "People are all the same" and "People are all different". Arguments can be made to support both claims. The similarity is at a basic level, and the differences can be quite subtle. What is interesting is not just how people are different, but also why they are. In some cases there are individual differences, while other differences seem to be representative of the society the individuals belong to.

The characteristics of English society (yes, I know this is a generalization, but it was reflected in my observations of people in general, however much some individuals may deviate from their societal norm) include: considerateness, respect for privacy, respect for personal space, and general politeness.

Here are some examples to demonstrate these characteristics. On returning to Israel, I was immediately aware of the difference in people's attitude towards each other's personal space. In England, when you move through a public space like a street or a station, people are constantly alert and aware of the space they occupy and the movements of others around them, and plot their movements so they won't block or delay other people. This just doesn't happen in Israel. As I walked through the airport on arrival, people just moved where they wanted, not caring if this intercepted the path of other people (some of them pushing luggage). In such cases, one person has to move aside, and this is usually the less assertive (or more considerate) of the two.

Famously, the English know how to queue (= stand in line), and almost never push in, while this is always a problem for Israelis.

The politeness of the English is well-known. I am not used to being called "madam" (while my husband was called "sir"), and service staff were constantly saying things like "thank you for waiting". In some cases, this can feel rather artificial, but it depends on how both parties perceive the exchange. If you accept that this is part of their job, but they can still mean it, then it becomes easy to smile (genuinely) and elicit an authentic interaction on a personal level. Some service people engage in friendly chat, in contrast with the stereotype of the English as cold and unfriendly. It would be interesting to visit the USA and compare the English and American forms of politeness.

Another thing I found, somewhat to my surprise, was that the English don't like using large denomination banknotes. We had changed up some currency in preparation for our trip, and received it in GBP 50 notes. Here's an exchange I had when buying items amounting to GBP 23:
Sales assistant: "Do you have our loyalty card?"
Me: "No, I don't live here".
[Gave him the GBP 50 note].
Sales assistant: "Oh, you really don't live here, do you?" [smile].
Travelling is a break from everyday life, and in this case it gave me the opportunity to be someone slightly different for a while. I was able to see what it could have been like if I'd stayed in England (I immigrated to Israel when I was 9 years old), or perhaps if I moved back now. Since I have a good English accent and was accompanied by relatives, I felt at home and accepted. All the stress and frustration of living in Israel fell away. On the other hand, I was aware that I was in England as a visitor and didn't have the experience of normal life there. I haven't worked in England, or owned a house, or dealt with the authorities. If I ever relocate to England, I will have a lot of adjusting to do. At the moment it doesn't seem likely.

It was good to have this long holiday, and also good to return to my home on Mount Carmel, with the view of the Mediterranean from the window, and to my cats.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

John Scalzi - Zoe's Tale

John Scalzi, Zoe's Tale, Tor, 2008.

Spoiler warning!

Mea culpa! I did something I don't normally do and read a book from a series without having read the previous books. Zoe's tale is supposed to be a stand-alone novel, but since it is in the same universe as Scalzi's previous books, and tells the story of the same events as The Last Colony from a different character's point of view, this wasn't the best choice to introduce myself to a new author. I will try to treat this book as a stand-alone novel, and if some of my remarks show that I would have understood it differently had I read it after the previous books, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

This is the story of Zoe Boutin-Perry, an adolescent girl with a complicated background, who moves to a new colony. As such, it was a story that resonated with me, both as a person with experience of immigration to a new country, and because I started reading it on the plane at the beginning of my first overseas holiday in years.

The story is set during a time of expansion and colonization, when the human race and hundreds of alien races are competing and fighting for new planets to colonize. Zoe is the adopted daughter of the couple chosen to lead the new colony of Roanoak, the first planet to be settled by humans from other colonies rather than humans from earth itself. It seems that the first wave of colonies chose people from one cultural or ethnic background for each, while in this case settlers were chosen from ten different colony planets, and one of the aims was to create a new, shared culture as part of the settlement process.

The moment the ship arrives at the planet, the new settlers discover that they are under threat of alien invasion, and so must cut all contacts with the rest of human society and not use any electronics which might be detected and bring the aliens to attack the planet. They spend the first year settling the planet using traditional, pre-electronic methods. Then things get complicated as the colony is used as a pawn in a larger inter-species political war.

We follow the first-person narrator character, Zoe, in her adjustment to her new life and her adventures with her close friends and parents. She is sensitive, witty and stubborn, and has wisdom beyond her years due to her special circumstances. I enjoyed hearing the story through her voice and found her easy to identify with.

Zoe's background story is what drives the narrative. As a young child, she lived with her father, a scientist who worked on consciousness. He created consciousness machines for the Obin, a species of aliens who had previously been given intelligence but not consciousness through genetic engineering. Zoe has since been revered by the Obin, and after her father's death two Obin accompanied Zoe everywhere, serving as her bodyguards and learning about human consciousness by recording her experiences and then sharing them with the entire Obin species.

To me, this aspect of the story was the most disappointing. I couldn't understand what was meant by intelligence without consciousness. It seems to me that any intelligent being is conscious to some degree, whether as an individual or as a hive mind. Consciousness is an emergent property of intelligence, and is on a scale rather than a binary characteristic that either exists or doesn't. It was implied that without the consciousness machines the Obin felt no emotions, but that didn't seem right to me either, since some emotions are primal and exist in animals we would not consider particularly intelligent or conscious. Later on there is an explanation of why the Obin were given intelligence without consciousness. This explanation was also unconvincing to me, though it may have been intended to reflect a very alien perspective on life. In any case, Zoe's life story is an example of a very conscious human existence.

Zoe grows and takes her place in the story, sometimes rather reluctantly. She has to use her power without abusing it and make choices that would be difficult for anyone, let alone someone young, inexperienced and conflicted about her identity. She emerges as courageous and moral in her dealings with the forces that would shape the colony's future. I hope she will serve as a role model to readers young and old.

I enjoyed this book, particularly the first-person narrative and the story of Zoe's personal life and development. In this case, it seems that a male author managed to portray a female character in a realistic and believable way. The larger picture of inter-species politics and wars was insufficiently explained for my taste, but may have been better portrayed in the other books. I also found it very frustrating that Scalzi doesn't seem to be a very visual writer, and mentioned many alien species without giving me enough visual clues to imagine them (with the result that I saw them as human in my mind's eye, which felt wrong). I look forward to reading the rest of Scalzi's work, and will report on it here in due course.

Note: The name Zoe should have an umlaut on the e, but I didn't know how to do that in the web browser. Sorry!