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!