Thursday, December 29, 2011

The strange passage of time

The year 2011 is coming to a close. All around, the media and individuals are looking back over events that took place during the past year, and perhaps wondering what they can expect during the next twelve months.

For me, time is not neatly divided into calendar years. First of all, for as long as I can remember, the academic year, starting for schools on September 1st and for universities some time in October or November (after the Jewish holidays), has been a more relevant unit of time.

I am more likely to associate past events with the place I was living at the time. Throughout my life, I have moved many times, staying in each place between one and six years. I remember where I was living when I heard about major world events, or when I met certain people, or when I did certain jobs. So past places of residence also constitute a unit of time for me. Now I have my own home at last, and intend to stay here forever, unless something forces or requires me to move elsewhere. I don't know how this will affect my use of this method of remembering time.

I have often observed that while children find each passing year important, because of their rapid physical growth and mental development, for adults the years can be very similar to each other. In many cases, adults lead very stable lives. Parents can mark the passage of time by watching their children grow up, and I expect they can often associate past events with the age their child was at the time.

I see my life as a continuum, sometimes marked by a sharp change, like moving house, or a memorable world event like a war. In other ways, it is marked by personal mileposts, like completing my university studies or getting a driving licence. But mostly my life is experienced as slow, continuous development within a consistent setting.

Whether you see life as I do, or enjoy dividing time up into units like calendar years, I wish all of us happiness and progress during 2012 and beyond!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Giving up NaNoWriMo

As regular readers know, I started the NaNoWriMo challenge to write a 50,000 word novel during November. In the spirit of transparency, it is time for an update on this experience.

I did well during the first week of November, but then I was ill and unable to write (or work) for five days. When I participated in this challenge last November, and in Camp NaNoWriMo this July, I was able to catch up after missing out on a day or two of writing, but five days seemed like a much larger challenge.

I started writing again when I felt slightly better (and returned to work, which also involved catching up), but found that not only was I not writing more words every day to catch up, I was writing less than the average daily word target, so I remained just as far behind my target as before.

The other problem I encountered was the realization that my story wasn't going the way I wanted it to. I had outlined the beginning of it, leaving a major plot point as "something has to happen that will bring about a major conflict". Now I had an insight that in order to achieve the sort of conflict I wanted, I would have to rewrite the book from the beginning, changing many of the main characters' personalities, relationships, and attitudes.

At this point, I decided to stop writing the novel. I hope to spend some time thinking about it, outlining and planning it, and eventually writing it from the beginning, the way it should have been written. I may do this during the next NaNoWriMo (or Camp NaNoWriMo), or at another time.

My experience this month has taught me several things about myself and my writing. First of all, I think these challenges are good for some people, in some situations. I know that having written two 50,000 word novels in past challenges helped my self-image as a writer. I now know that I can complete a piece of writing, working through the story, watching the plot evolve, and practicing the persistence required to write every day.

I discovered through writing the previous novels, and particularly this one, that I would really prefer to have the entire plot worked out in advance rather than to "discover" it while writing it. Perhaps this means I'm "controlling", and prefer to bring things up into my conscious mind instead of hoping my subconscious will rise to the occasion. It may also relate to my working experience as a translator, where I am, in effect, writing in one language a text that has been "outlined" in another language. Bringing my translator skills to writing fiction, I would have an outline instead of a source-language text to base my writing on.

Thinking about my writing in general, I have found that I tend to make my characters rather too idealized, and therefore perhaps difficult to identify with. I also seem to bring my personality trait of conflict avoidance into my writing. I find that I haven't been depicting serious conflict, which is the core of any story. My characters have not been put in real danger, and as a result the story felt weak. I need to learn to create flawed characters, to put them into interesting and hazardous situations that threaten them physically, emotionally, or existentially. This is something I hope to work on at the outlining stage.

I don't see my decision to stop doing NaNoWriMo this time as a failure. It would have been pointless to force myself to continue working hard to catch up on a novel that I knew would have to be completely revised anyway. The circumstances forced me to reevaluate the novel and to think about my story writing so far, and I have learned a lot. As in many situations in life, quantity and quality have to be balanced, and I no longer aspire merely to  write 50,000 words, I want to write the best 50,000 word story that I possibly can.

I wish all NaNoWriMo participants, and all other aspiring writers, great success in writing and developing their skills.

Monday, November 14, 2011

How to say no to low-paying translation work

Caller: Hello. I got your number from ----. I understand that you're a translator?

Translator: Yes, that's right. How can I help you?

Caller: I need a section of my Ph.D. thesis in education translated into English. It's about 50 pages long, and I need it by the end of December.

Translator: I can do that.

Caller: How much do you charge?

Translator: NIS -- plus VAT per 250 words of the translation.

Caller: Can I tell you something? The previous translator I worked with charged half that rate. Why is there such a difference?

Translator: I don't know how other translators decide on their rates. In my case, I use the ITA's recommended rates. I am an ITA Recognized translator and editor with over 15 years of experience in academic translating and editing.

Caller: Is there any way you could be flexible with the rate? I'm not an impoverished student, I have a job, but that is still more than I was expecting to pay.

Translator: I could consider a slightly lower rate, but nothing like a 50% discount. This is why I don't usually work with students. I prefer to work for lecturers and professors, who have a budget they can use for translations, or in some cases have the means to pay my rates out of their own pockets.

Caller: But what if I tell you that I will have several more jobs in the next few months?

Translator: In that case, it makes even less sense to reduce my rate. Why would I want to spend even more hours working at half my usual rate when I have enough work at my normal rate?

Caller: So I understand you are not interested...

Translator: I realize  that you can't afford my rates. You may be able to find another translator working at lower rates. Perhaps look on the notice boards in the university or ask at the Students Union. But they would probably not be ITA members or have as much experience as I do. Good luck!

Caller: Thank you. I'll think about it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo 2011

Today I started writing a novel as part of the 2011 NaNoWriMo challenge. This is my third 50,000 word novel, having written one last November in the 2010 NaNoWriMo, and another this July, in Camp NaNoWriMo.

Unlike the previous stories, which I had been working on in my head for several years, I am now writing a story I only thought up recently. I was able to start outlining it before beginning to write, and plan to continue the outlining process as the writing proceeds, because I think planning ahead will help me write more easily. Without the pressure of making up the story as I go along, I should be able to focus on the writing itself as I write.

I feel very optimistic about this project, which has many layers of complexity. I hope my writing experience in the two previous novels has prepared me well enough to do this story justice.

I wish all the other NaNoWriMo participants the best of luck, and hope this challenge will benefit everyone who tries it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

William Gibson - Zero History

William Gibson, Zero History, Penguin, 2011.

This book follows the novels Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007), and features some of the same characters, though this is not technically a trilogy or series, at least in my opinion. Like those novels, it explores the implications of contemporary or near-future technological and social change.

Hollis and Milgrim are hired by Bigend to investigate a secret fashion label, but end up involved in a more serious matter. The concept of a secret product, promoted by word of mouth, with a scarcity value, is presented as a counterpoint to the mass-marketing of mass-produced mainstream consumer goods. But does the fashion industry have more sinister applications?

I found the nomadic freelance lifestyle of the characters attractive in some ways. It seems like the ultimate independence, travelling, living in hotel rooms, with one's entire worldly property contained in a case, a backpack, and a laptop. I know they can only live like this because they have specific skills that others can hire, and it does impose restrictions on their personal relationships. But it is a world in which I enjoy spending time, in my mind, knowing that my own life will probably never resemble theirs in any way.

It is an interesting thriller, but at the same time a close character study. Gibson's attention to detail and evocative portrayal of realistic people in strange situations makes for fascinating reading. Following the character's inner thoughts and reactions to their experiences and surroundings, and tracing who knows what about whom, engages the reader in the world in an intimate and personal way. Like all great literature, it inspires readers to wonder in what ways they are similar and different to the characters, how they would behave in the circumstances presented, and what living in such a world would do to them.

I found it hard to decide whether this was the final story set in this world. Perhaps the author will return to the setting and some of the characters. I would welcome such a story, but I did not feel that this novel, or the two previous ones, for that matter, left plot threads unresolved in an unsatisfactory way. Each book really can be read on its own, unlike some series that claim each novel is "stand-alone" but end up having to summarize the back-story for new readers.

I have read all Gibson's novels, and look forward to reading whatever he chooses to write next. He is one of my all-time favourite writers, a master of plot, character, description, and language. I strongly recommend his work to all readers, even those who do not normally read anything that can be considered SF.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Legal relativism

Here in Israel, serious traffic accidents often receive extensive media coverage, particularly if they are hit-and-run accidents. Last Friday morning, a woman was killed by a car that had been reported as driving dangerously just minutes earlier. The car's driver and passenger offered no assistance to the victim, did not report the accident, returned home, and fled the country. They returned to France, from where they had recently moved to Israel, with their families. There is no extradition treaty between Israel and France, and people accused of a crime in one country can only be extradited to the other by special dispensation. There is now some public pressure in Israel for this to be done in this case. It is also possible that the driver could be tried in France under French law, even though the crime was committed abroad.

When asked why he had left the country, the driver explained that in Israel he would be sentenced to 20 years in prison, while in France the sentence would be significantly lower. I have tried to find details about the penalties for driving offences in France, and it appears that causing death by dangerous driving would be punishable by a minimum of five years imprisonment, while hit-and-run would add another two years imprisonment. From what I have read, the 20 year sentence in Israel is the maximum penalty for killing someone in a hit-and-run accident. The law cannot treat such cases as murder, but considers them more serious than negligent killing, which only receives a penalty of three years imprisonment. When a driver abandons a pedestrian, this is considered a serious offence, because in some cases, the victim's life could be saved by immediate intervention, and anyone ignoring the fate of an injured person is potentially contributing to their death.

This case made me wonder why there are such significant differences between the levels of punishment for identical crimes in different countries. It seems to me that the legal system of each society reflects, to some extent, the values and norms of that society. The legal system can also be used by legislators to modify the public's behaviour and perception of certain behaviours.

Does this mean that French legislators or French society consider driving dangerously, killing a pedestrian, driving off, and not reporting the accident a much less serious crime than Israeli legistlators or Israeli society do? I have no way of knowing. From what I know about Israeli law, the punishments are relatively severe as a deterrent. The percentage of fatal and serious traffic accidents here, relative to the population, or to the number of cars, or the length of the roads (three different ways of comparing accident rates) is higher than in many western countries, and continuous efforts are being made to improve safety and prevent accidents.

In an ideal world, I believe most countries would share similar values, at least regarding things like traffic accidents. If countries had more similar laws and punishments, perhaps there would be fewer cases of criminals fleeing justice in the country where the crime was committed in the hope of evading punishment, or at least serving a smaller sentence, in another country.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Exposure helps build immunity

Two unrelated recent news stories seem to me to be connected in a way. I find it interesting when I see this sort of connection, so I thought I would share my thoughts.

The first story is a report explaining what many people have suspected for a long time. The modern tendency to keep everything clean and sanitized may be partly responsible for an increase in certain diseases, such as asthma and auto-immune diseases. This was reported with headlines claiming that "some dirt may be good for you".

The explanation proposed is that our immune system requires some exposure to dirt and bacteria in order to develop its resistance. Living in an overly sanitized environment might cause the immune system to turn against the body's own cells, since it has not encountered enough foreign contaminants and learned to protect against them.

Many people now are extremely paranoid about exposure to anything that is not clean and "hygienic", but for most of the history of the species, and for most of the population of the world today, such circumstance are not available, and yet, these "dirty" conditions do not necessarily sentence people to a life of sickness, and many sufferers of some modern diseases seem to have developed them precisely because they live in such "clean" surroundings.

The second story concerns the ideas of modesty in Orthodox Judaism (and similar ideas exist in other religions). For a long time, Orthodox (haredi) men in Israel were exempt from military service because it was considered incompatible with their way of life. In recent times, efforts have been made to integrate them into the army, and to find ways to allow them to maintain their religious practices. One of the habits Orthodox Jews consider essential is modesty. They try to avoid contact between the genders, and one of the rules is that men are not supposed to hear women sing. At a ceremony in a military base, a few Orthodox soldiers walked out when female singers appeared. They were dismissed from the officer course they were attending, and the case has sparked controversy among the Israeli population.

On the one hand, proponents of religious freedom argue that people should not be required to do anything that goes against their religious principles. On the other hand, many people find it offensive that women should be treated as a threat to men's "purity".

It seems to me that the whole attitude of the fear in some religions that men will be unable to resist the charms of women if they see an "immodestly" dressed woman or hear her singing voice, therefore enforcing a sort of "hygiene" to prevent exposure to such risks, suffers from the same faulty logic as the thinking of the extreme cleanliness trend.

Men who grow up in a liberal society, exposed to "immodest" women, do not end up constantly thinking sexual thoughts, let along acting on them. They develop an immunity to the temptation, and learn to live normal lives in the presence of women. Of course there are some who act inappropriately, but this is also true within religious society. In some cases, the very lack of exposure among religious men can create the sort of hypersensitivity that I would consider unhealthy.

Since I believe that a healthy society involves giving freedom and equality to women, I find any attempts to restrict their behaviour counter-productive. I think that several religious attitudes toward women are blaming the victim by considering women inherently seductive, referring only to their physical aspect. These religions also seem to give men very little credit, considering them naturally incapable of controlling their urges. So these attempts at "modest" behaviour are demeaning to both genders, and leave them incapable of confident, authentic interaction with members of the opposite sex.

The lesson from these two stories seems to be that exposure increases immunity. To be healthy, people have to be exposed to the things they want to be capable of resisting. Avoiding exposure weakens and distorts the natural responses, and is an unhealthy impulse. I doubt many people with strong beliefs in cleanliness, whether literal or metaphorical, will change their opinions and embrace exposure to the very things they fear, but perhaps this is an argument people who favour exposure can use when explaining their position to such believers.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Three behaviours to avoid

Yesterday during a visit to the supermarket I encountered three types of behaviour people should avoid, within a few minutes of each other. Having these things happen in such proximity made me aware that many people don't realize the consequences of their actions, so I decided it was worth writing about, even if these seem like obvious things to avoid.

1. Sexual harassment: As I entered the supermarket, the security guard said, "With a smile like that, I won't even check your bag". I hadn't been aware I was smiling, and it was probably my normal polite expression. I felt very uncomfortable to have a stranger I'd never seen before engage in this sort of banter. Then, when I left the supermarket trying to avoid any further contact, he said, "Where's that smile, then?", and I reacted with a forced, self-defensive smile. The man seemed creepy to me. He was old, had a goatee and a long, greasy pony tail. I don't usually judge people by their appearance, but in this case his attitude confirmed the impression his appearance made. If I'd said something like "Don't talk to me like that", he would have become defensive, saying it was just some harmless fun. He would probably not understand, or care, that it made me feel uncomfortable and that for me that was an intrusion into my privacy. Some readers may be surprised that I could be upset by something so minor. Indeed, I have experienced more serious cases of sexual harassment in the past, and I know many women would accept this as natural. But the point is that such men frequently treat women they encounter as sources of entertainment rather than as people with feelings. So, if you are a man reading this and have engaged in this sort of "harmless fun", please think again.

2. Inconsiderate behaviour: I have seen this often, but yesterday there were so many shopping trolleys (= carts) in the supermarket car park (parking lot), and in one place there was a whole stack of them almost blocking the way so I had to drive carefully to avoid them. Many years ago, supermarkets introduced the lock mechanism on trolleys, where you put in a coin and then have to return the trolley after use to reclaim the coin. This was supposed to ensure that people put them back in the right place instead of leaving them all over the car park. What happened is that people now have coin-shaped pushers that they can use to unlock the trolleys, so they no longer have to worry about retrieving their coins, and the situation has reverted to the original, pre-lock state. People don't seem to have enough consideration for others to put their trolleys back, and this can even endanger drivers. Until another method is invented to ensure the return of trolleys to their place after use, I would like to call on everyone to be considerate and responsible, take a few more steps, and put the trolley away. And this is just one example of the sort of selfish, short-sided lack of consideration that is prevalent in society.

3. Absent-minded behaviour: Then, when I was driving out of the car park, I almost had a head-on collision with a car trying to turn into the car park exit, which was clearly marked with a no entry sign. Luckily, we were both driving very slowly, and my headlights were on. As soon as the driver noticed me, he realized his mistake and turned the other way. But this demonstrated to me that careless and absent-minded behaviour could potentially have dangerous outcomes. I am a very cautious driver, and when I enter an underground car park, I turn on the lights, take off my sunglasses, and look around carefully to make sure I am driving the right way. This is not the first time I have seen people driving the wrong way in this car park, so I am always alert for people doing the wrong thing there. So I would like to call on people to be more aware of their surroundings, especially when driving.

I often wish I lived in a world with better people in it. There is not much I can do to change the world, but perhaps readers of this post will become more aware of their actions and of the impact such things can have on others. If through my writing, or as a personal role model, I can help even a few people change their behaviour, that will be my contribution to the net sum of goodness in the world.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The stress of home improvement

At the moment, we are having building work done in our flat. This is very stressful, and I am trying to understand why the situation has such a strong emotional impact.

First, it was not exactly our choice to have this work done. We were asked to make these repairs by the neighbours downstairs. Rain water has been seeping into our external walls, trickling down, and causing dampness in their walls and ceilings in two places. To prevent this from happening this winter, we are having the balcony retiled, and part of the external wall of one room rebuilt. Having to do this work because our property is causing damage to the neighbours' flat is an uncomfortable situation. Obviously we have to do it, and we want to keep good relations with the neighbours. But it was not a decision we initiated, and if we had known the extent and cost of the work required, we might have been able to prepare for it better and felt more in control of the situation.

Second, I feel invaded and trapped. We have workers in the house several hours a day, making noise, making a mess, smoking, listening to their music, sometimes arguing. My home is an extension of myself, and I feel very uncomfortable with having other people here who are not our guests. Working from home is ideal for me, because usually my home is peaceful. I am now finding it hard to concentrate with the noise and the constant awareness that I might be interrupted. I can't just take my computer and work somewhere else, because I want to supervise the workers.

Third, we have two cats, and they are currently confined to the bedroom while the workers are here. They get very upset at the noise, and sometimes I have to spend part of the day in the bedroom with them just to reassure them. I don't know if it would have been better to put them into a cat pension/hotel, since they are very attached to us and hate travelling (we have moved home with them several times).

Finally, of course, there is the financial consideration. Because the damage was caused by rain water rather than burst pipes, the repairs are not covered by our insurance. This has forced us to take money out of a savings account. We always intended to use our savings for emergencies such as house repairs, but it is never a good feeling to have to large expenses, especially as we always have a large degree of uncertainty about our future financial security.

I have realized that the stress results from feeling helpless, invaded, trapped, unsure about the future, and from worrying about the cats. I know that my life is normally quite stress-free, and hope the work will be finished as soon as possible so we can all return to our normal routine, in an improved home.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Guy Gavriel Kay - Under Heaven

Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven, Harper Voyager, 2010.

This is a story about living in interesting times, and of having greatness thrust upon you. The main character, Tai, spent two years living in isolation, working on a personal mission to bury the bones of soldiers on a remote battlefield. He is rewarded with an unexpected gift, two hundred and fifty horses. This forces him to return home to the capital and engage with a world that has changed during his absence.

Tai discovers that his brother has become adviser to the first minister, and his sister has been made a princess and sent as a bride beyond the northern border. We follow her adventures in the northern region, where Tai had previously served in the army. Tai becomes involved in palace politics, and everything changes.

The story is set in a society based on ancient China, though no knowledge of history is required. It is a fantasy, but the fantasy seems to exist only in two aspects of the story: the ghosts of the dead soldiers, and the shamanistic powers in the north.

This was an interesting story, partly because the main character seemed rather passive, having to react to circumstances beyond his control rather than asserting his will. At times, the story is a very personal examination of his inner thoughts, while at other times the author draws back from the action and describes how events are later understood or interpreted by historians and poets. The juxtaposition of a personal account and a wider view shows that objectivity is difficult to achieve, and the later presentation of events is no less subjective than any individual's perception of them at the time.

As always, I enjoy Kay's writing, with the vivid descriptions of people and places, the balance between the characters' personal motivations and the larger events that seem to control their fates, and the occasional insights into the minor characters' lives.

I recommend this book, and readers who are encountering Kay's work for the first time would do well to try his earlier novels, too.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Making challenges realistic

As regular readers will have noticed, my plan to write a blog post every day in August did not work very well. I managed to write on 13 out of 31 days, which is less than half. On the other hand, it is more than I have ever written in one month. Since my original target when I started the blog was to write 6-8 posts a month (which I sometimes achieve), I now think that 8-10 posts per month would be a more realistic target than writing every day.

Just as during the Camp NaNoWriMo challenge in July I did not manage to write every day, and had to make up my lost word count on other days, I found that trying to write every day was a bit demanding, especially as I had a busy workload during August.

My problem has always been that my work as a translator and editor takes up the same sort of creative verbal mental energy that my writing does, so at the end of a day's work, I find it difficult to spend even more time and energy crafting words and sentences, and often prefer to do something else. Since I don't intend to change my day job, I will have to find a way to combine my own writing ambitions with my paid work.

I often think of subjects for blog posts and then never get around to writing them. Now that I have my little netbook, it should be more convenient to write wherever I happen to be at the time. I have some books to review, and perhaps also some more controversial topics to discuss. I hope that with a more realistic expectation of how often I should write, I will be able to meet my new target and keep this blog interesting for my readers and myself.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Wild boars in Haifa

Over the past few weeks, we have been observing the wild boars who visit our garden late at night. They travel in sounders, groups composed of a few families. We have watched the piglets grow. Usually, they run away when anyone approaches, but on Friday night Ivor finally managed to film them, creating the following five-minute video:

Ever since we moved to Haifa seven years ago, I have read reports of wild boars in the city (and surrounding towns and villages). Last year I saw one boar in the garden late one night, and this year the sounder has been visiting once or twice a week.

Haifa is built on a forested mountain, and I like to remember that the forest and its wildlife were here long before humans. The city is still a very green place, with trees everywhere and green valleys between the built areas.

Following the major forest fire in the Carmel forest last December, the wild boars are probably finding it more difficult to survive in the damaged forest, and have moved into the city, with its abundant food supplies. I wonder if they will eventually learn to be friendly with humans.

In some parts of the world, boars are hunted by humans. I think this has been less common in our region, since Jews, Moslems, and Druze traditionally do not eat pork and so would have less motivation to hunt the boar for food.

As far as I know, the local boars have never attacked anyone. There is, however, a risk of running them over at night, and I read that three boars have been run over recently on a dark inter-city road south of Haifa. They have put up warning signs to alert drivers to this risk, but I think street lights might be a better option.

I am grateful for the opportunity to observe wild animals from my home. Some people have to go to the zoo, or on safari, to have this sort of experience. Every day I am aware of living in balance with the natural world, and it broadens my horizons to be constantly reminded that there is more to life that our purely human concerns.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why we shouldn't worry about spoilers

Recent research has found that knowing the ending of a story can improve our enjoyment of it. This goes against the popular idea that knowing too many details about a book or film in advance "spoils" it for the reader or viewer. We have developed a culture where people discussing any plot are expected to issue "spoiler alerts" and to ensure that their audience is already familiar with the work before revealing not just the ending, but any plot twists and details that might be considered important.

I have had mixed feelings about this tendency. Here on my blog, I have often either posted spoiler alerts at the beginning of a book review, or else discussed the plot in a subtle way, without giving away too much about the ending. This was not my original intention, and I had wanted the freedom to discuss books in detail, on the assumption that readers of the blog would have read them, or would not be upset by knowing such things in advance.

Now the study seems to show that this sort of knowledge can help us enjoy the experience even more. This makes sense to me, because I know that while the first reading is a unique experience of discovery, if I really enjoy a book I will read it again, often several times over many years, and almost all the DVDs I own are of films I originally saw in the cinema.

The repeat experience of a work of art has different qualities compared with the first tasting. Once you know what to expect, you start looking out for the hints of the ending throughout the work, and can also devote more attention to other aspects, such as the language, the pacing, the character development, and so on. In fact, I wrote about this only recently in a post about the experience of reading a good book.

I have often read books for the first time with full knowledge of the ending or main plot twist, often from reading book reviews and talking to people who recommend the books, and I never felt this diminished my enjoyment. There are very few stories that depend so completely on the element of surprise and the shock of discovering the plot twist or the ending. A story should be enjoyable all the way through, with the ending constituting a resolution or a pay-off for everything that has happened along the way. If the journey was not pleasurable, having an unexpected ending will not change that experience.

I am now wondering whether it is time to start writing about books without worrying about spoiling the ending. Perhaps I will put up spoiler warnings so those who know they will be disturbed can avoid reading the post, and then feel free to discuss whatever aspects of the book I want. I would be interested to hear what readers of this blog feel about this issue. Would you mind reading my book reviews if they contained spoilers?

Monday, August 15, 2011

What is love?

Today is Tu B'Av, the Jewish equivalent of Valentine's Day, so it seems like a good opportunity to talk about love.

Love is one of those concepts that is used to describe a wide array of emotions and situations. Of course, there are many types of love, including family love, friendship, and passion. I want to talk about what is called "romantic love", the sort of love that people feel when they want to have an exclusive intimate relationship with each other.

When I think about this sort of love, the most important feature in my opinion is wanting the best for the person you love. Ideally, both partners feel the same way about each other. But if a person loves and is not loved in return, true love should help overcome the rejection and accept that it might be better for the other person not to be in this particular relationship.

Love should not be possessive. When people attack someone who has rejected them, this does not express love. I think it expresses frustrated passion and hurt pride. What is called a "crime of passion" in English is called in Hebrew "murder with a romantic background". I wish this term was no longer used, as there is nothing romantic about killing an ex, or the person that ex is now seeing.

Love should inspire us to become the best people we can be. We should aspire to be worthy of the love we want to receive from the beloved. Anything negative or destructive done in love's name proves that there was no real love involved.

A relationship based on love should bring the couple closer together, learning to understand each other, to communicate with each other, trust each other, and to feel respect for each other. Rather than trying to change your partner, first think about how you could change yourself in the interest of a more harmonious relationship.

I am very fortunate in my relationship, and give thanks every day for the love that we experience. I hope some of our friends can learn from our example and believe in the possibility of a loving marriage.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ken MacLeod - The Restoration Game

Ken MacLeod, The Restoration Game, Orbit, 2010.

The story centres on a fictional former Soviet Republic, Krassnia. Lucy Stone works for a computer company that makes a game set in this Republic, based on Lucy's mother's study of its mythology. Lucy soon learns that there is a kernel of reality behind the myth she had heard from childhood, and sets out to discover the truth.

Like many of MacLeod's books, this is a political thriller, but it is also SF. It is difficult to discuss the plot in any detail without spoliers. Let's just say that the many coincidences, parallels, and foreshadowings are there for a reason. The central plot device was apparent to me from early on, but this did not reduce my enjoyment of the story. I got the feeling while reading this that the author was relishing his cleverness, and inviting the readers who got the early hints to join in and enjoy the journey of discovery the characters undertake, while those who were slower to understand would end up impressed with what they discover along with the characters.

As we follow Lucy from her IT job into a complicated political world, involving her mother's past relationships and Lucy's childhood in Krassnia, a picture of the wider world emerges. At one central plot moment, two characters who should (in my opinion) mistrust each other, and one should be furious about what the other is about to do, just decide to cooperate for short-term expedience in a way that seemed to me unrealistic. I have seen these moments of easy trust in MacLeod's work before, and wonder whether this is part of his personality, or perhaps a form of idealism.

The story is full of subtle details, vivid descriptions (MacLeod is good at clothing), and moments of humour and emotion. Lucy's character is well-drawn, while some of the other characters are less fully developed.

The final revelation will please those who knew all along, and, I hope, be a pleasant surprise for those who had no idea where the story was leading them. It might give many readers a lot to think about. I enjoyed this book, though I do not consider it the author's best work.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Accepting compliments

While not many people particularly enjoy receiving negative criticism, it seems to me that is it quite common for people to have difficulty accepting compliments. On the face of it, compliments are an expression of someone else's appreciation and respect. You would think this is the sort of positive attention the most people would crave. In fact, things are more complicated.

Compliments often make the recipient uncomfortable. Sometimes people just don't want to be the centre of attention, and they feel uneasy knowing that the spotlight of scrutiny has been directed their way, even if the outcome was a positive reaction. Other people find it difficult to believe in the sincerity of the compliment. They start wondering what the compliment giver is trying to achieve through this gesture.

From the experience of myself and others, I have learned the following techniques for accepting compliments. First of all, assume that the compliment giver is expressing a genuine opinion. It is not worth speculating and developing all kinds of conspiracy theories about their possible motivation. Second, the best reaction is always "Thank you!". If you are being complimented on something you did or made, you can add "I'm glad you enjoyed it". Third, even if you feel that  the compliment might not be fully deserved, don't try to belittle yourself. To do this is to disagree with the compliment giver's opinion, and to reject a genuine positive comment. Finally, remember the compliments you receive, as they are useful feedback.

To be a giving person, you also have to know how to receive, since receiving something gracefully gives pleasure to the giver. You are actually giving them that pleasure when you accept praise. Practice giving compliments (only sincere ones!) to others, observing how they react, and how their reactions make you feel. Then reverse that lesson, and react to compliments you receive from others in a way that you know would give them pleasure.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Reacting to a good book

Reading a good book is, obviously, a pleasure and a joy. A good book can transport the reader into another world, tell a story of great significance, create emotional identification with characters, and use language in inspiring ways.

When reading a good book, I am always torn between wanting to continue, to find out how it ends, and not wanting it to end. I sometimes have to use great willpower to put the book down and go to sleep, or to do other things, rather than read on to the end. In such cases, telling myself I am rationing the pleasure of reading by postponing the experience until later can help me convince myself to stop reading for a while.

Good books ask to be read again. Sometimes I reread a book immediately after the first read, wanting to have the very different experience of the second read, with the knowledge of the conclusion. In the second and later readings, the reader can notice all the small hints the author put into the book, foreshadowing the ending. Later readings don't have the urgency, the desperate need to find out how it ends, and thus allow readers to take greater pleasure in the process of building up the plot and the characters.

For as long as I can remember myself, I have wanted to write, and so reading is always a learning experience for me. Whatever I read, I try to notice how the author shapes the plot, creates suspense, builds characters, and structures the story. I notice things like the pacing, the construction of dialogue, and how much can be revealed and how much concealed to keep the reader's interest. While it is possible to learn from badly written work how not to write, it is naturally much better to choose good writing and draw inspiration from those masters who do it well.

We all have our weaknesses, and I must admit that sometimes when I read something really good, I become vividly aware that I am not yet able to write this well. I try to stay positive and tell myself that I am learning from the best, and I know that as I practice my writing regularly, I will improve. I have learned not to idealize even the writers I admire most. Everyone has a few faults, and even the best books are not perfect. I can always find something I would have done differently, a phrase that irritates me, or some logical flaw in the plot. When I see these things in good books, I know that when I write, I create something that is purely mine. My own writing will contain my own strengths and weaknesses, which I am learning, just as every writer's writing does.

There are some skills I know I will never develop. I can't sing, and it has always frustrated me that my voice cannot follow a tune I can hear clearly inside my head. I put aside this frustration so that I can enjoy music. With writing it is different. I write, to the best of my ability, and to do this I have to learn from writers better and more experienced than myself. With this in mind, I have to balance my admiration of their skill with the knowledge that my own skill is developing as I work on it. I may not ever write works equal to those I most enjoy reading, but one day I will write work that feels to me good enough to attempt to publish, and that should be my short-term aim.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Yesterday I felt a minor earthquake. At about 11:55, everything shook from side to side, just one shake. I soon discovered that this earthquake had been felt in many places along Israel's coast, that its magnitude was 4.2, and that its epicentre was about 40 km. west, out at sea. Experts say this is a rare location for earthquakes, which normally happen along the Syria-Africa fault line. If a more serious earthquake happens out at sea, this could cause extensive damage and loss of life along Israel's coast, the most densely populated part of the country.

This was not the worst earthquake I have experienced. I think I have felt 4-5 worse than this, and a few similar ones, over the past few years. None of these caused much damage. Israel is a place where there have been many serious earthquakes in the past, and the next big one is statistically likely to happen soon.

For years experts have been warning the government that the country is not prepared for a major earthquake. Most of the buildings built before the 1980s are likely to collapse. There could be serious damage to infrastructure, and the loss of life could be more significant than in any war or previous natural disaster. The short-sightedness of the authorities in ignoring this risk is staggering, and I can imagine the sort of commission of inquiry that would investigate the negligence after the fact. When experts give this sort of warning, they should be taken seriously. The regional security situation is not necessarily the greatest threat to this country. We may eventually make peace with all our neighbours, but there is no way to prevent an earthquake, only to prepare as much as possible to minimize the damage it might cause.

The idea that my home might well be destroyed in an earthquake, and that I could die or be injured in it, is just another of the background stresses in my life. I try not to think about it, just as I prefer not to dwell on the likeliness of another war, of another wave of terrorist attacks, and so on. But knowing that nobody is making the necessary preparations is frustrating and infuriating.

I can only wish that no serious earthquakes hit densely populated areas anywhere in the world, but I know that now and then it happens, and if it happens here, a great deal of preventable damage and deaths will result.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Caesarea National Park

Yesterday we visited the Caesarea National Park. Of course, I have been there many times before, on childhood school trips, on family visits, and sometimes with visitors from abroad. It is a place with a long history of habitation by various cultures: Pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Moslem. It is one of my favourite places to visit, and over the years I have seen the site grow and develop.

I remember on my earliest visits the main parts of the site were the Roman theatre and parts of the Crusader walls and city. Further north, parts of the aqueduct were visible along the beach. The site was sandy and there were a few facilities, such as bathrooms and a small cafe. Since then, additional sections have been excavated and opened to the public, including the Hippodrome and more of the harbour area. The site has been developed a lot, with better footpaths, lawns, and many more restaurants and shops in reconstructed buildings. It feels more hospitable, but at the same time less like an excavation and more like a tourist attraction that happens to have some ancient ruins lying around. It also feels more commercial, with many places to eat, souvenir shops, art galleries, and jewellery shops.

We went to see the new attraction at the site that we hadn't seen before, two short films about the site. One described the city's history, and another explained the various buildings from the different periods. These films were available in seven languages (Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian, French, German, and Spanish), which I think is probably rare at most tourist attractions around the world.

The weather was hot and humid, so we didn't explore the whole site this time. I look forward to visiting the site again when the weather is better.

Friday, August 5, 2011

My office set-up

I work mainly at a desktop computer. My current set-up has a 22-inch monitor and a wireless keyboard and mouse. While my for many years I was a Mac user, as described in a previous post, I moved over to Windows four and a half years ago, mainly because most of my customers use it, and Office for Mac has not been localized for Hebrew. I use Firefox as my browser and Thunderbird for my email, and iTunes for my music and to sync my iPod Touch. I have an inkjet printer, on the shelf under my keyboard shelf, and I have noticed that I now use it almost exclusively for printing hard-copy invoices and receipts. I have a very old fax machine to the left of my desk, which I think might be 20 years old. I now rarely need to send or receive a fax, maybe once a year or so. To the left of my desk is a bookcase full of dictionaries and reference books, though it's usually easier to look things up online.

The most recent addition to my computing life is a netbook. This is a LG X170, and it has a 10.1 inch screen, which seems to be about a quarter of the size of my desktop monitor. This is the first laptop I have had, and it has taken me a long time to be able to justify needing a laptop. I hardly ever work when I'm away from home, but there have been times when I have wanted to check my email, which sometimes results with having to do urgent work, which is not always easy on someone else's computer. I also used to think laptops were too large and heavy for me to want to carry just in case I might need to use them. But the new netbooks seem ideal in size and weight. I hope to use it in other rooms around the house when I don't feel like getting up to go into my office just to check something online or see if I have any email. Now that I am writing novels and trying to blog more regularly, having another computer will help me write more often, even when I'm tired of sitting at my desk after a long day of translating or editing.

I see my computers and gadgets as tools. They are both useful and fun, and my life would be different without them. I consider myself a sensible technophile, and a competent user of my equipment, but not as an early adopter of new gadgets.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hannu Rajaniemi - The Quantum Thief

Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief, Gollancz, 2010.

This is a far-future novel, and its characters are post-human. A warrior called Mieli rescues a thief from prison, asking him to steal something for her. Together they explore the complex society of the Oubliette, a moving city on Mars. Meanwhile, a young detective, Isidore, is hired to solve a mystery. The city is policed by a sort of vigilante group known as the Tzaddikim.

The themes of this work are time and memory. Time serves as a currency, and people who run out of time become Quiet, meaning that they are taken to serve in the maintenance of the moving city, in a different form, for a while. People's memories are constantly edited, and their interactions are controlled by a complex set of permissions, known as Gevulot. People can choose how, or even if, others will see them, whether to reveal their name or identity, and whether to allow the memory of an encounter to be stored. This inconsistency of memory makes people's perception of reality transient, allows privacy and anonimity to be taken to an extreme degree, and poses challenges for discovering the truth about anything.

Gradually, the thief regains some of his past memories. The different threads of the plot come together, with characters meeting and secrets being discovered. There are clever tricks, fight scenes, advanced weapons, and the development of real human emotions.

The story keeps the reader at a distance, with important aspects kept hidden until the reader learns about them when they happen, or when one of the characters reveals them, but not before. It is often difficult to identify with the characters when they are so much more powerful than us, but this is balanced by their human stories, gradually explored and revealed.

The ending leads to dramatic changes, and this is an interesting future I might enjoy visiting again in other books or short stories. I hope for stories set in this universe that introduce and welcome readers to the setting, rather than mystify them.

One thing that bothered me was the misuse of a Hebrew term. While the author uses the noun Tzaddik (singular) and Tzaddikim (plural) correctly, he employs the term Gevulot (= boundaries) as both a noun and an adjective, and seems unaware that it is plural (the singular would be Gevul). Readers unfamiliar with Hebrew would not notice this, but I think words from real languages should be used properly, where SF writers prefer not to invent new words for their new concepts. This may seem like a minor point, but it did irritate me, and I wonder whether it would be possible to correct this if/when the novel is reprinted.

I had mixed feelings about this novel. It appeals as an intelligent, literary, and aesthetic experience, but is somewhat unclear and distant. It may appeal to readers seeking an intellectual challenge, and to those who enjoy post-human settings more than I seem to.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Protests for social justice

Recent weeks have seen the birth of a social justice protest movement in Israel. People have started camping out in parks and public spaces to protest the high cost of housing and the cost of living in general.

On Saturday night there were large demonstrations in ten cities, with a reported total participation of about 150,000 people, with 100,000 in Tel Aviv, and 10,000 each in Jerusalem and Haifa. The Haifa demonstration was very close to where we live, and we could hear the speeches and the applause. I realized from the volume of applause that there were more people there than I have ever known to attend an event in Haifa, and it has been called one of the largest demonstrations ever in the city.

I have been following the story of this new protest movement with interest. For the first time, the movement is led by middle class professional people who still find it very difficult to reach the sort of financial security that would allow them to buy their own home, and even renting is becoming more and more expensive. I can attest to this difficulty. For twenty years we rented, and only when we inherited enough money, from my aunt and Ivor's parents and grandparents, could we consider buying our own place.

The reporting of the protest has involved several interesting comparisons between Israel and other developed countries, regarding salaries, working hours, the cost of various items, and the gap between rich and poor. Israel recently joined the OECD, and in most indices is at the bottom of its ranking. For example, if I remember correctly, Israel has the largest proportion of child poverty and the largest gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest.

One of the factors that must be taken into account is that in Israel, the citizens' contribution to the state is greater than in most other countries. Most Israelis are recruited to compulsory military service at 18, serve for 2-3 years, and some of them are required to participate in reserve military duty until the age of 40, sometimes for a month each year. Also, at times of war, the civilian population is called upon to stand strong, keep working, and not flee when Israeli cities are attacked from across the border. For these contributions, in addition to the taxes people pay, there is a growing feeling that the population is not being rewarded sufficiently.

What has been bothering me, though, is the distorted focus of the public debate and the attitudes displayed by some of the people opposed to the protests. At first, it was suggested that the protesters were spoilt, wanted to live only in Tel Aviv, and were unwilling to move futher away. This suggestion faded when tents sprung up in so many other cities, and when data about the cost of housing in all parts of Israel were published.

Many people are still arguing that the economy here is good, that the protesters could live more modestly, and that they are "just trying to bring down the government". These claims can be answered by first looking at the economic data, which show the protest is based on fact rather than feeling. To say that the middle class should live more modestly implies that the vast majority of the population should actually be working class rather than middle class. Telling your population to lower its aspirations does not seem to me to be a good way to improve the economy and morale. Finally, peaceful protests are a legitimate form of expressing the population's opinions about the government between elections.

There is a call for the restoration of the welfare state and an end to privatization. This is a point of ideology that raises some serious arguments, but also some very emotionally charged claims. I have observed that many of the supporters of the more extreme market freedoms, who claim the state should have a minimal intervention in the economy, are self-made wealthy people. They like to present their prosperity as evidence of their hard work, and to argue that anyone can become wealthy given enough hard work. This seems to me to be a form of blaming the victim - claiming that the poor brought their poverty upon themselves through laziness. These self-made people refuse to acknowledge the importance of luck in their success. Their careers have been helped along by contacts they made, and often by chance factors that gave them an advantage over others who worked just as hard. In some cases, such people have advanced by bending the rules, while more honest people who studiously avoid corruption end up falling behind.

The current proposals being negotiated by the protesters and the government may lead to some compromise steps being taken. Ultimately, I do not consider it likely that life in Israel will be made much easier for the working and middle classes, or that the gap between the richest and the rest of us can be reduced significantly. But an outcome I would like to see would be an improvement in the level of public debate, where people looked at the facts and listened to each other with open minds, rather than prejudging those who disagree with their ideology.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What does age mean?

Today is my birthday. This makes me wonder what our age really means.

Age denotes the time a person has been alive. However, people develop and learn at different rates, so it is a poor indicator of where an individual is in the journey of discovery that is life.

Children place great importance on their age, and each year makes a big difference in their life. As adults, we generally stop thinking so much about the differences between one year and the next, except for parents watching their children grow up.

When we are young, we spend our time busily observing and learning how things work, how people communicate and interact, and what things mean. As we mature, we have a framework of the knowledge we have acquired, and we can place into this framework any new thing we learn or experience. We have context for many of the new things we encounter, and can compare them with similar things from our past knowledge.

For some, growing older means a loss of the excitement and pleasure of youth. Nothing is new any more, and familiarity breeds contempt. This seems to me unfortunate, since novelty in itself is not the most important aspect of any experience. Those who can no longer enjoy a sunset because they have seen thousands are losing some of the joy of life.

In general, older and more mature people tend to be more responsible and balanced, and less extreme, than the young. This is partly because over time they have seen things from different angles, learned to see in shades of grey and not just in black and white, and have had time to discover that the world and human situations are complicated.

I see my life so far as a process of growth and development. I have worked hard to overcome some of the problems I experienced when younger, and I am much happier than I used to be.

I am now in the best years of my life. I have reached a level of maturity and stability that I find comfortable, but I still see myself as young, in that I am constantly learning, open-minded, and creative. I hope this state lasts for the rest of my life.

Monday, August 1, 2011

New challenge: Blog every day in August

After I spent July writing a novel, with a daily word count target, I have decided to set myself a new daily challenge: I am going to write a blog post every day in August 2011.

I have been writing this blog for three years now, and most months have failed to reach my intended target of 4-6 blog posts. Sometimes I think of a good subject for a blog post, but then never get round to writing it. There have even been several books I read and planned to review, but by the time I remembered that I hadn't written the review, I had already read something else and had sometimes forgotten what I had planned to say.

This month, I hope to find enough interesting subjects to blog about. It will be an experiment in discovering the sort of topics I would enjoy writing about, and if I get any feedback from readers of this blog, this will help me learn what you would like to read.

Doing something every day for at least three weeks is considered one of the best ways of forming a new habit. I know this has worked for me in several instances. A few years ago, when I started visiting the dentist regularly after years of neglect, I learned to start using dental floss in addition to brushing my teeth. At first, this extra step seemed like a burden, but now my routine is not complete without it. I think it became a habit after I managed to floss every day for three or four weeks.

Habits are mental shortcuts. When we do things habitually, it saves a bit of mental energy on thinking and deciding what to do. Habits become automatic, part of how we behave almost instinctively. Here are some good habits to adopt: Brushing and flossing teeth, looking both ways before crossing the road, getting ready to pay while still waiting in the queue (line), always checking emails before sending to make sure they are addressed to the right person, checking the spelling of everything you write (not just using the automatic spellcheck, but by reading it again), and keeping water with you to drink frequently throughout the day.

The habit of writing something every day is very important to me, as I have always wanted to be a writer of both fiction and non-fiction works. This blog is part of my non-fiction writing, and by getting into the habit of writing something here every day, I hope to acquire the habit of writing every day for the rest of my life, which should improve the quality of my writing as well as the quantity. 

If any readers have suggestions for blog topics, or wish to share stories about acquiring habits, please comment below!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Finishing Camp NaNoWriMo

I have just finished writing my second 50,000 word novel! Last November I took part in the NaNoWriMo challege, and this July I decided to join the Camp NaNoWriMo challenge to write another novel I have been thinking about for a long time.

The differences between the two experiences are significant. I started this challenge with the knowledge that I had already succeeded the first time I tried, so I was more confident that it could be done. I also knew that writing the daily target word count was not going to be too difficult for me, though sometimes I knew that the quality of what I was writing was not my best. This time, there were several days when I was unable to write, and there were several days when I had to catch up, writing the word count target for two or three days in one session. I think the most I managed to write in one day was about 4,000 words (with about 1,660 being the daily target), which I recently read a published author saying was about the maximum output he could manage in a day. So I now know that when necessary I can do much more than the minimum.

I am not a summer person, and the heat bothers me a lot. July is probably my least favourite month of the year. However, I was happy to retreat to my air conditioned office and work on my novel in the heat of the afternoon, trying to imagine it was cooler outside. I was also fortunate to have less pressure of work this month, allowing me to concentrate on my writing. I now feel ready to take on a greater work burden, having spent a month expressing my creative side.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I did not have time to outline this novel. My experience last November, and this current experience, have shown me that I would prefer to outline and plan the novel in advance. I had to make up quite a lot as I went along, and the pacing of the story is not quite right. Both this novel and the one I wrote in November will need a lot of rewriting to be considered finished to my satisfaction. The rewriting process will teach me a lot, and inform my future writing efforts.

I recommend this challenge, which is also taking place this August, to aspiring writers who have yet to make the commitment to write every day. The pressure can be difficult, but I believe it is a worthwhile experience and life lesson. Professional writers almost all advocate writing every day, with some giving themselves a minimum word count to achieve. I look forward to taking the November NaNoWriMo challenge, this time with a novel I hope to outline in advance.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Camp NaNoWriMo

Having written a 50,000 word novel last November, as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge, I am currently taking part in a new challenge, Camp NaNoWriMo. Once again, the aim is to write 50,000 words in a month, and the new camp version takes place in July and August.

I had decided that the next novel I wrote would be outlined and planned, as I found the "discovery writer" method I used in November to be a bit unsatisfying. But when I heard about the challenge in July, I decided not to wait until November. I am now working on the second of two novels I had been thinking about writing for years. Having ideas for plot, characters, and setting in your head is not the same as outlining a novel! Things still change when you start writing them down, and I'm waiting to see if this novel drifts as far from my original thoughts as the last one did.

July is not such a good time as November, for me, because I dislike the summer heat. I usually feel more motivated and creative when the weather is cooler. But at least this time I happen to have less pressure of work, so I'm taking advantage of this free time to be a full-time writer, until the next job comes in. I know I should be getting ahead, writing more than the minimal word count each day in case I have to spend hours working later in the month, or be away from home. So far I haven't managed to do this, though I find the daily word count relatively easy to achieve. I'm learning what my limits are, how much writing I can do, and how tiring it can be.

After I finish this novel, my aim is to start the revisions of the previous novel. I have not looked at it since I finished it on November 30th, and I know it will need a lot more work before I consider it finished to my satisfaction. I have often heard that it is good to put a piece of writing away for several months and then return to it with fresh eyes, seeing the product rather than the process. I hope I will be able to evaluate and revise it more objectively, as if it were someone else's writing. Eventually I will have to do this for the novel I am now writing.

I find it difficult to critique my own work while I am writing it. Perhaps the creative mind is naturally resistant to analytical thinking. I think if I were constantly judging my words and the structure of my work, it could cause creative paralysis. On the other hand, I want my writing to improve so that eventually it naturally requires less editing or revision.

I am enjoying this challenge, and encourage any readers who find this idea inspiring to sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo in August, or for NaNoWriMo in November and start writing their own novels.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Peter F. Hamilton - The Evolutionary Void

Peter F. Hamilton, The Evolutionary Void, Pan, 2011.

This book is the third and final volume of the Void Trilogy, which in turn is set in a later period in the same universe as the Commonwealth Saga. As usual for this author, it is a large book, spanning many different characters, sub-plots, and worlds.

It is difficult to discuss the end of a series without giving spoilers. While in the Commonwealth Saga the threat to human civilization was posed by an uncompromising alien species, in the Void Trilogy it is the Void itself that threatens to expand and engulf the galaxy. All known species have been studying the nature of the Void for thousands of years, but humans have received a unique insight into the mystery when a scientist starts dreaming the lives of some humans living inside it. As the series progresses, we follow the characters outside the Void as a group of humans plan to try to enter the Void, which would lead to a catastrophic expansion. We also follow the world within the dreams, and gradually learn about the special nature of life within the Void.

This volume builds to a satisfying climax. The various sub-plots are tied together. The mystery is explained. Some things that earlier seemed to be trivial descriptions or local colour turn out to play central roles in the story. A few characters from the earlier stories are re-introduced.

I have read all of Hamilton's novels, and enjoy observing the progress of his skills over time. His work has a wide appeal, with something for everyone. There are characters, sub-plots, and aspects of the story that will interest individual readers more than others. For me, the combination of a wide-ranging space opera describing far future human societies, along with the Big Ideas, creates a perfect balance of enjoyable escapism with thought-provoking speculation into scientific and social possibilities.

One example of this is the idea that human life has been extended, and people can rejuvenate frequently. Most people maintain a young appearance, usually in their twenties, and are in good health and very attractive. An interesting thought experiment for readers: Try to imagine every adult you know, including family, friends, colleagues, and celebrities, all appearing to be around their mid-twenties, all in good health, and all as attractive as possible. Nobody would age, nobody would have any disabilities or any of the features that might be considered unattractive or unhealthy. Can you imagine spending your day with everyone, including yourself, looking like this? Imagine a wedding where the bride's mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and so on for many generations, are all present and all looking equally young and attractive. This demonstrates how used we are to the concept of ageing. We expect to be able to determine a person's age, more or less, from their appearance, and that this appearance will change over the decades. The social implications of changing this expectation are among the most interesting speculations in many SF works I have read, including much of Hamilton's work.

I recommend this series, and new readers will benefit from reading the books in order, starting with the Commonwealth Saga, or perhaps even the related stand-alone novel Misspent Youth, before reading the Void Trilogy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Marketing Conference: Faster, Cheaper, More Focused

This week I attended the Second Annual Marketing Conference organized by the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Haifa & the North. This followed the first conference I attended last year, and was once again held at the International Convention Center Haifa. There were about 250 people attending, slightly fewer than last year.

The morning started with greetings from Haifa's deputy mayor, Oded Dunitz, who spoke about the city's development, and noted that the number of tourists visiting Haifa has doubled in the past year. Then the President of the Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Gad Shefer welcomed the participants.

The first lecture was by Osnat Rubin, who has spoken at two conferences I have attended, this year's ITA conference, and the last Jasmine conference. She explained that marketing messages should focus on the customer's needs and how the product/service benefits the customer. Next, Amir Cahani told us about providing value. He noted that locating a new customer costs 5-8 times more than preserving an existing customer, and stressed the importance of long-term relationships with customers, and of professional ethics. Avi Osipov of Open College presented his lecture as a story of a computer technician trying to find the right way to advertise his business. The suggestions were asking existing customers to give referrals, opening a business Facebook page with recommendations, and providing appropriate content.

After a short break, Yahel Demeter introduced us to his method of sociological branding, explaining that the brand has to represent something symbolic, not just functional, for the customers to want to be associated with it. To create good branding, it is important to study the potential customers through sociological theories. Next, Josepha Edman, who spoke at last year's conference, told us how to use Facebook ads for effective advertising, and gave practical tips for creating a good business page. She argued that Facebook ads are becoming more popular than Google AdWords.

Next there was a panel about marketing to different sectors in Israel. These sectors are the Israeli Arabs (20%), the Russian immigrants (15-20%), and the ultra-orthodox Jews (11% or more). Keren Bar told us that marketing to the ultra-orthodox sector stresses family values and uses sales promotion and word-of-mouth marketing. Jumana Boulus described the Israeli Arab population as having a growing middle class, with a rising education level and greater disposable income. Marketing to this sector should focus on community marketing, sales promotion, and should create an emotional connection to the brand. This sector has a greater cellular market than the Jewish population, and a new Arabic language television channel to be opened in 2012 will provide new opportunities. Avner Korin explained that there has been a decline in Russian printed newspapers, and now Russian speakers are very active online. This panel was not given enough time, so the audience was not able to ask questions and develop a discussion.

Nahum Donitza discussed digital media and the importance of creating a community, providing interesting content that encourages social interaction. He noted that Israelis spend more time than any other population on social media, and that 65.5% of them read their friends' recommendations.

Finally, Zeev Klang presented cellular marketing, noting that only 45% of cellular activity now is phone calls. The advantage of cellular marketing is that it is focused, content is sent only to those who request it, our phones are with us all the time, the some content can be location-relevant.

The conference ended with lunch. In general, it was well-organized and the lectures were more or less on time. I learned a few new things, and felt motivated by having things that I already knew confirmed. I met about ten people I knew. I hope to attend next year's conference.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Home ownership

Five years ago this week, we moved into our flat. Before then, we had lived in rented flats, for periods of between one and six years in each place. Here are some thoughts about what owning a home means to me.

First of all, it gives me a sense of permanence. Before, we never knew how long we would be able to stay in each flat. Knowing that I might be forced to leave at the end of the contract, with the stress and upheaval of finding another place, packing, moving, unpacking, and informing everyone of the change of address, was a constant threat somewhere in the back of my mind. Now I know that I can live here as long as I want, and only move if or when I choose to do so, this background anxiety has been lifted.

Secondly, we were able to design our home to meet our requirements. The rented flats were designed for the owner's needs, and contained some furniture that was not ours. Our own home is designed to suit our tastes and preferences, and all the furniture and fixtures here are our own. This does give us the responsibility for any repairs required, but it also means no potential conflicts with landlords.

Financially, some experts say it is preferable to rent rather than buy. They are considering the interest paid on mortgages as compared with the interest you might get on savings in the bank. When we were renting, we could often afford a larger flat than we have now. I am also acutely aware that we were only able to buy a flat when we inherited enough money for the down payment (from relatives on both sides). So I think it is a complicated decision, and not all the factors are purely rational.

Thinking about why I enjoy owning my home, it seems that the reasons are both emotional and practical. When I was young and idealistic, I sneered at the idea of needing to have "a job, a house, and a car" for security. I thought happiness was purely internal, and as such, could be achieved independently of external conditions. Having lived a life with little security for the future for many years, I now think that while these externals are not something to aspire to in themselves, their absence does make life a bit more difficult. There is less anxiety in the life of a person who has a regular income, a home, and perhaps a means of transportation.

Some people thrive on variety, change, new challenges, and new environments. There are many young people now who are living a minimalist lifestyle, partly enabled by the growing importance of the digital over the physical. When people report that they can pack all their belongings into one case and one backpack, and be ready to move or travel whenever the opportunity arises, I can admire this, but I know it's not for me. I like having physical books, though I am reading more in digital form. I like having my own kitchen and cooking my meals. Also, I have cats in my life and they do not appreciate moving home.

To me, home means security, stability, comfort, and permanence.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, Night Shade Books, 2010.

The story takes place in Bangkok some time in the 23rd century. Climate change has flooded many low-lying cities, carbon fuels are now rare and expensive, and the world has suffered plagues and starvation. Energy is generated by storing it in springs wound by humans or animals. Multinational "calorie" companies create genetically modified food products to withstand plagues, and there are various genetically engineered creatures and humans.

In Bangkok, there is a struggle between the Trade Ministry, seeking to increase the Kingdom's cooperation with the rest of the world, and the Environment Ministry, seeking to prevent the spread of diseases.

Many of the main characters are foreign, allowing the city and its social and political tensions to be explored from different points of view. Anderson Lake is American and owns a spring factory as his cover for his secret mission of gaining access to the Thai seedbank, a source of genetic information for his calorie company employers. His assistant, Hock Seng, is a Chinese refugee from Malaya, who used to own a shipping empire and lost everything, including his family, during a fundamentalist uprising. Emiko is a Japanese "windup girl", a genetically engineered human created to serve as a modern sort of geisha and personal assistant. She is abandoned in Bangkok by her master, and ends up suffering increasing humiliations in a sex club. The Thai characters include Jaidee, an officer of the Environment Ministry, and his deputy, Kanya, who become deeply involved in the political struggle within the city.

Themes of tradition and change are central to the story. After everything the world has experienced in previous decades, people still retain certain traditions, including nationalism. All the characters undergo significant changes as the city's situation becomes volatile. The political machinations and the resulting violence seem inevitable.

It is significant that the book's title refers to the character of Emiko, who does not seem, at first, to be central to the story. She is a variation of the old theme of the artificial person, created, used, and abused by humans who consider her less than human. The sections written from her point of view make it clear (as it always has been, to me) that sentient minds are equal, whether they are formed naturally or created in other ways (such as AIs, robots, and genetically created beings). Her story also shows the extreme humiliation some humans are willing to cause others to satisfy their own distorted desires, and the dehumanizing effect of considering anyone as "other". It is a sensitive discussion of the sex industry that shows the author's empathy and morality.

This book has won many awards, and as soon as I started reading it, I understood why. The writing is very good. The world building is impressive. The characters feel real. The plot builds in a way that shows how events result from the characters' experiences and interactions. The detailed depiction of the setting draws the reader in, creating an immersive experience not all authors manage to achieve.

I join the many readers who have highly recommended this book. It is not always a pleasant story, but it is well-written and well-imagined, and leaves the reader much to think about.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Iain M. Banks - Feersum Endjinn

Iain M. Banks, Feersum Endjinn, Orbit, 1995.

When I first heard about this book, a certain aspect of it put me off reading it (as I explain below), but I bought it a while ago along with some of the author's other novels, and gave it a chance. It is one of his non-Culture books.

The story is set in a far-future earth, long after a large part of the human population has departed. Humans live eight lives in physical form, after which they have eight incarnations in the Crypt, where human consciousness is stored in a virtual reality. As the story starts, the earth is threatened by a cloud of interstellar dust that is covering the sun, and we follow a few characters in their attempts to prevent the end of life of earth by activating a solution to this problem left behind by the advanced humans who had moved into space.

The aspect of the novel that bothered me when I first read a review of it was that one of the viewpoint characters' stories is written in a sort of phonetic form (hence the title, which is his way of spelling "fearsome engine"). I have always found phonetic writing irritating. Some writers try to portray the regional accents of characters by writing phonetically, and in this case this form of writing is supposed to reflect the character's dyslexia (though I'm not convinced any dyslexic would write like this, and it is not clear why this character would have written down his story, considering how difficult it was for him to write). It just makes the reading experience difficult. I had to adjust to reading these sections, sometimes having to decipher what the words meant. Perhaps this is an attempt to reflect what reading is like for people with dyslexia, but I don't think this experience will increase readers' understanding of dyslexia, or make them more sympathetic.

The story gradually brings together various pieces of evidence explaining what is happening, and follows the characters as they try to make sense of their roles. It seemed to me that the people who prepared for the Encroachment years before and left the mysterious solution could have planned better how it would be activated, preventing the chaos that happened in this story. But perhaps that is actually more realistic, and it creates the threat that drives the plot.

My impression of this book is that even without the annoyance of the phonetic sections, it is far from Banks's best work (which I really enjoy). There are big themes to be considered, the characters develop and change, and the conclusion is reasonably satisfying, if you don't mind a sort of deus ex machina, but for readers unfamiliar with this author, I would recommend starting with some of his other novels.