Monday, December 9, 2013

Being an introvert

I have always known that I'm an introvert. I probably first learned this concept as a teenager, and it explained a lot about my feelings and preferences. I have been thinking about this again recently, and one aspect of being an introvert makes sense of a lot of my experiences: the idea that introverts have their energy drained in social situations and replenished when they are alone.

Throughout my life I have found social gatherings exhausting. At school and university, I sought solitude during the breaks, when other people sought social interactions. To get through the day I needed to spend time alone. This is now true when I'm at conferences.

This preference made my three experiences of working in an office difficult (each job lasted less than a year), and had a strong influence on my decision to work from home. I feel very fortunate that I have a profession where working from home is the norm.

My preferred form of socializing is in groups of up to 4-5 people, preferably somewhere quiet where we can talk. I have largely avoided going to parties since about 7th grade. My discomfort in crowds has meant that I have been to very few rock concerts or demonstrations. The desire to see my favourite bands play live or to support good causes is usually outweighed by my knowledge of how the crowd would make me feel.

Looking back, I now realize that much of what I found difficult when I moved to Israel at the age of 9 was not acclimatization problems or a culture clash, but just another expression of the introversion. I tried to fit in with my peers, but often social gatherings or parties ended with me in tears, for reasons that I couldn't explain. I was something of an outcast and a loner throughout school and university, but I now realize that this was just as true before I came to Israel. I used to think I didn't fit in because I was different, being half-English and half-Israeli, so I couldn't belong fully to either culture. In fact, it was something more primal in my nature, and would probably have been expressed no matter what circumstances I encountered.

Being introverted is not the same as being shy. I have worked hard over the past years to overcome my shyness, so that I no longer expect to be rejected or ignored by other people, and also so I don't care so much what others think of me. This has been a very important step for me. However, I don't know if or how the introversion can be changed. When I try to go outside my comfort zone, I inevitably end up feeling uncomfortable! Perhaps introversion is an innate tendency, while shyness was something I learned and had to unlearn.

I think extreme introversion like mine is a problem, because I believe human beings are social animals, and we find meaning in life through our interactions with other humans. Everything that people do that makes their lives meaningful has some relation to other people. This includes family interactions like raising children, caring for ageing parents, and of course intimacy with a partner. Our work is done to be of some benefit to other people, and our creative lives are intended to have some influence on an audience. Our ideals and values reflect what we consider to be the best way for human beings to live.

In this respect, I am fortunate to have a close relationship with my husband and family, and my work and my creative writing give meaning to my life and benefit other people without forcing me to spend hours in the company of others each day.

Western society seems to be biased towards extroversion. There is an expectation that people "should" be social, and loners are often treated with suspicion and/or pity. I imagine that many people are introverts without being aware of this, not understanding why social situations are so difficult for them, perhaps accepting the judgment of others or even feeling guilty for not wanting to socialize. I hope this can change. Awareness of the differences between introverts and extraverts should be raised, and society needs to find ways to value and nurture both types of people and allow them to live fulfilling lives.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

ITA Lecture Evening October 2013

Yesterday I attended the ITA's lecture event, held at the Leonardo Basel Hotel in Tel Aviv. This time a new format was introduced: Instead of two long lectures, there were ten lectures of ten minutes each. I think this was a good idea. Expressing yourself concisely is an important skill, and the lectures probably benefited from the time restriction. Having many short lectures also ensures that there will be something of interest to more people.

Doron Greenspan discussed the form of address in Hebrew, as used in instruction manuals and cookbooks. Because the Hebrew verb distinguishes gender and number, translators into Hebrew have to decide which form of the imperative to use, or whether to use an impersonal present tense verb.

Michal Schuster presented the world of interpreting in mental health, when the therapist does not speak the patient's language. The interpreter has to contend with an extremely emotional experience, in addition to the usual linguistic and cross-cultural issues. This seems to me a particularly difficult branch of the translating profession.

Ofra Hod explained the Poetrans project, a wiki catalogue of translations of poetry into Hebrew. This is useful when a translator (or anyone) encounters a poem (or part of one) in another language and wants to know if and where it has been translated into Hebrew. The site lists books and the poems translated in each, with the title in the original language and the Hebrew translated title, and of course mentions the author and the translator.

Innes Moldavski gave examples of sexism in language and discussed the ways that translators with an awareness of feminism and gender issues can create a more neutral text.

Shakhar Peled gave an entertaining talk about distractions and procrastination, the two occupational hazards faced by translators.

Ury Vainsencher presented the work of translators in the United Nations and its various institutions. He noted the six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish, and explained that the interpreters (spoken translating) and translators (written translating) work in separate departments. The work seems technical and challenging.

Debi Yehoshafat told us about the phrases in Portuguese that originated from football, and in some cases noted the differences between Brazilian Portuguese and the Portuguese of Portugal.

Alan Clayman discussed financial translating as a highly specialized field. Just as in any area of specialization, the translator must have a complete understanding of the material and awareness of the technical terminology and style used in both source and target language.

Mark Levinson presented a case study of song localization, showing the differences between the lyrics of a song in the American original version, the Hebrew version, and the French version.

Judith Rubanovsky-Paz discussed the role of explication in translation. In some cases, translators add notes and additional explanations to make a text more comprehensible to the target language culture. However, in some cases there are explanations that are redundant in the target language, and she made a convincing argument for omitting these types of explications.

I highly enjoyed the lectures, and hope the ITA organizes another similar even soon.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Holiday in Kos

After our free holiday last month in Crete, this month we had another free holiday. My parents decided to invite the whole family on a short trip to Kos. This was partly to celebrate my mother's 70th birthday next month (and also my father's 80th birthday back in March), and partly an opportunity for the whole family to spend some time together. There were ten of us: My parents, my sister and brother-in-law, their 4 children (ages 15, 12, 3, 7 months), and Ivor and me.

We stayed at the Blue Lagoon Village, a luxury all-inclusive resort on the south coast of Kos. This resort contained many pools, restaurants, bars, shops, a water-park, and a beach. All the meals and drinks were included in the package, the staff were friendly and efficient, and the place was clean and well-maintained. My father has difficulty walking, and he was able to ask for rides on the electric golf carts when he needed to (though sometimes he had a bit of a wait). My only criticism of the resort is that the WiFi connection, which cost extra, was not available in the rooms but only in the public areas.

Blue Lagoon Village, Kos

Beach, Blue Lagoon Village, Kos

Readers of this blog will know that I love cats, so I was pleased to discover that in the resort there were two special areas dedicated to cats. There were cat towers for the cats to climb on, with a water bowl, and both guests and staff regularly fed the cats. The hotel asked guests not to feed cats in the restaurants, but encouraged them to take food to the cat towers, or even buy cat food in the mini market.

We went on one day-trip, which the hotel helped us organize. First we stopped at Zia, a village with a panoramic view and many tourist shops.

Zia, Kos

Next we visited the Askleipion, the ancient temple of healing. We climbed the stairs and explored the site.

Askleipion, Kos

Askleipion, Kos

For lunch, we were taken to a taverna recommended by the hotel staff in Platani, a village where many residents are descended from Turkish families, and there is still a Turkish influence on local cuisine.

After lunch we had a brief visit to Kos Town before returning to the resort. We were able to view some of the excavations and the harbour.

Excavations, Kos Town

Harbour, Kos Town

We had another enjoyable holiday, and being with my family made it a different sort of experience. Perhaps one day we will return to Kos and explore it more thoroughly.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Holiday in Crete

In August 2013 we spent a week in Crete thanks to the free holiday we had won. We received a week's accommodation in the Village Heights Golf Resort in Hersonissos. The resort is located in the foothills quite a distance from the busy tourist area along Hersonissos beach. It was a quiet location, but we didn't feel too isolated as there was a shuttle bus into the village (and back) a few times a day. Our apartment contained a living room, dining area, balcony, small but very well-equipped kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. It was comfortable and spacious, and the furniture was full-sized, without the compromises seen in some hotels, though as in most hotel rooms the lighting was somewhat insufficient. We had breakfast and a couple of dinners in the poolside restaurant, and the rest of our meals in cafes or tavernas while we were out, or prepared in the kitchen.

View from balcony toward sea, Village Heights Golf Resort
We visited Heraklion, where we have been a few times before. We returned to the Archaeological Museum, which has been renovated since our last visit. However, the air conditioning was not being used, presumably for budget reasons, so it was rather hot. We saw various finds, ranging from Minoan to Byzantine. I recommend this museum to any visitors to Crete. We had lunch in a cafe in the pedestrianized shopping area, and while we were eating an accordion band walked by playing some sort of folk song. Then we went down the the Venetian harbour and spent a while trying to photograph the impressive waves, while preventing our sunhats from being blown away.

Heraklion Venetian harbour

Waves on a windy day
We also visited Agios Nikolaos, a touristy but still charming coastal town with a lake. That day started out cloudy and overcast, and there was even a bit of drizzle in the morning, which made a pleasant change from the normal summer weather. We walked around the lake, did some souvenir shopping, and had lunch in a taverna where we fed some cats.

Agios Nikolaos lake, view from above

Agios Nikolaos lake

Agios Nikolaos, taverna cats
Another day we went on a guided tour to the Lassithi Plateau and Knossos. I enjoyed the drive through the mountains, where we saw wild goats and eagles. First we visited the monastery at Kera.

Monastery at Kera

Then we visited the Cave of Zeus, but after climbing up the hill we saw the long queue waiting to enter the cave, so we decided not to bother and returned to where the bus was parked and had a drink and looked around the souvenir shops.

We were taken to a potter's workshop to see a demonstration of pottery making. Then we had lunch in a taverna with windmills in its garden. These windmills were the traditional way of pumping water from the aquifer all over the Lasithi plateau, but there are not many of them left now.

Windmills on the Lasithi Plateau

Ruth & Ivor with windmills
After lunch we were taken to Knossos, the Minoan palace, which we had visited before. The first time we were there we saw peacocks living on the site, but they don't seem to be there any more. It was hot and quite crowded, and we wandered around on our own instead of staying with the group. It was good to see the site again.


Knossos dolphin fresco
We also went for a walk in the local villages not far from the hotel. We visited Old Hersonissos, Piskopiano, and Koutouloufari. These villages are in the foothills above the busy coastal area. We enjoyed seeing a more authentic view of Cretan life.

Church, Old Hersonissos

View towards the sea from Old Hersonissos

In Piskopiano we visited the Museum of Rural life, which contained a collection of artifacts related to farming and village home life, and also an impressive collection of traditional Cretan weaving and embroidery.
Household items, Museum of Rural Life, Piskopiano

Courtyard, Museum of Rural Life, Piskopiano

View toward the sea, Piskopiano
We had lunch in Piskopiano and then walked downhill to the touristy seafront of Hersonissos.

Hersonissos beach
We enjoyed our holiday, and found a balance between wanting to go out and see things, and also needing to rest and enjoy some quiet times in the hotel. Crete provides something for everyone. The locals are friendly, the food is excellent, the public transport is reasonably reliable, and we were fortunate to be staying in a hotel more luxurious than usual.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Winning a free holiday

A free holiday must be one of the most attractive and valuable prizes you can win, after a large sum of money and a free car. Here is the story of our experience of winning a free holiday.

Last summer we were on holiday in Rhodes. We were walking down a street and a girl in a blue t-shirt stopped us. She was from a tourism company called Aegean Blue, and her job was to persuade tourists to find out more about their holiday plan. First she asked some questions, and we fit their required demographic: married (or cohabiting) couples aged over 30, with full time jobs, home owners, and perhaps she also asked about owning a car.

She gave us each an envelope with a prize in it. Ivor got a free ticket for a local tourist bus, and I got a card with a picture of a key on it. She got all excited, saying that the key meant I had won one of the big weekly prizes, which included an iPad, a music player, and a free one-week holiday in one of the group's hotels. To find out which prize I had won, we would have to go to the sales presentation at Aegean Blue's offices and visit their local hotel. She got us a taxi to Ialyssos, a village just down the road, and we attended the sales presentation.

The idea was that you can buy the right to a certain number of weeks in advance, and then use them over the next few years in any of the chain's hotels. This is like time-share but more flexible, since it's not limited to one particular hotel. The sales rep explained the principle and showed us the hotel. When we got down to how much it would cost, we had to tell him that we couldn't afford it. He took it quite well, saying that of course they wouldn't want people who couldn't afford it to get into debt for sake of their holiday package.

Finally, the card I had received with a key on it was compared to a list of prizes, and we were told we had won a free week's accommodation. This was not conditional on buying their package, though we were told we would have to attend another meeting with a sales rep during the holiday.

This was exciting news. The group has hotels in Rhodes and Crete, and we decided to go back to Crete, an island we have visited several times before.

You can't look a free holiday in the small print, as it were. There was a registration fee of 99 Euros, and it did not include the flights or any meals (the hotel suites had a kitchen, and restaurant meals were available at extra cost), so we knew it would not be entirely free. However, it gave us an opportunity to visit Crete again and stay in a higher class of hotel than we usually do.

We booked our stay at the Village Heights Golf Resort for this summer. We later found out that Aegean Blue had been acquired by Diamond Resorts, a larger group, just a couple of months after we won the holiday, but this did not alter the terms of the free holiday.

During our week in the hotel we had the required meeting with the sales rep, and once again explained that we couldn't afford the sort of package they were offering. She accepted it and didn't bother trying to persuade us. We were also invited to a free dinner and entertainment evening, and nobody put any pressure on us during that event either. We had an enjoyable holiday and were treated just like the paying guests. The stories we had heard about pressure being put on people to buy various time-share packages just did not apply to our experience at all.

I will write more about the hotel itself in a later blog post.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ken MacLeod - Intrusion

Ken MacLeod, Intrusion, Orbit, 2012.

Ken MacLeod is the most political, or politically conscious, SF author I read. Politics is fundamentally about what is in the best interest of the individual, what is in the best interest of society (or sub-groups within society), and how to balance these interests.

Intrusion describes a near-future society where the state decides for individuals what is in their best interest. In a commentary on the theme of "health and safety gone mad", the state's concern for children's health has led to women having to wear a monitor ring that records their exposure to smoke and alcohol, both before and during pregnancy. Parents have to install cameras in the home. Everyone's behaviour and interactions are logged and monitored, and certain key words and contacts can get people into trouble.

At the same time, scientific advances known as Synthetic Biology have enabled the creation of a pill that fixes certain genetic problems in the fetus. This has not quite become compulsory, but it is considered the most responsible thing for mothers to do.

The story follows a young couple, Hope and Hugh, who are expecting their second baby. Hope refused to take the fix for her first child, and does not wish to take it for the second child, for reasons that are never quite clear, perhaps even to herself. This is where the balance of interests comes into play. Should an individual be allowed to choose for herself, when society in general has strong opinions about the interest of her children? Hope's MP makes this position explicit:

"The government isn't making choices for anyone. Like I said, it's enabling people to make the choices they would make for themselves if they knew all the consequences of their choices" (Intrusion, p. 149).

This statement can be applied to many situations in our current reality. We have to ask ourselves about the assumptions behind the decisions that are made for us. 

Since MacLeod is really a writer of SF, even when his work appears to be a near-future thriller, there is also an interesting speculative element to the story, which is not explored in as much detail as the dystopian society and remains tantalizing in the end.

As in MacLeod's other novels, I felt there was a certain lack of healthy cynicism in the characters, and in some cases they were, or became, overly honest and trusting. This seems to be a matter of principle for the author. His characters tend to be driven by their ideology or opinions and refuse to compromise or dissemble the way normal people do. This can be admirable, but it sometimes detracts from their realism.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking novel about the meaning of freedom, and I recommend it to a wide range of readers.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Foster Dad John as a Role Model

For over a year now I have been watching the Foster Kitten Cam, which shows live video of mother cats and kittens being fostered before adoption. Foster Dad John takes in the cat family, usually shortly after birth, and keeps the mother and kittens in a special room. He provides shelter, food, and toys, but most importantly human interaction, so the cats become socialized.

I find John's attitudes and behaviour to be an inspiration, and consider him a worthy role model, not only as a cat fosterer but as a person. I should stress that I only know John's public persona, as expressed when he appears on the cam, on the chat, or on his Facebook page, The Critter Room. However, I believe this is a genuine reflection of his personality, and that he is almost certainly the same person in his private life, as a father, a friend, and a professional.

First, he is always very calm and very patient. These are qualities that are important when interacting with cats, but also in almost any social situation.

John puts the cats' well being as his top priority. This means that he is not broadcasting the cam for his own needs, but in order to observe the cats. His other aims in setting up the cam are to inspire other people to foster cats in need, and to educate the public about cats and kittens in general. This sort of dedication to the object of his work is something we can all learn. When you are doing something, do it for the thing itself rather than for your own needs. If you end up with a feeling of achievement and satisfaction, and perhaps receiving appreciation from others, these are positive side effects, but should not be the rationale for our actions.

Finally, John acts altruistically. Not only does he put the cats' well being first, he also cares deeply about the people who eventually adopt the cats, and about the cam's viewers. He wants to provide as many people as possible with positive interactions with cats.

John's role as a fosterer is not easy. He has to love the cats completely, and then give them up after two or three months when they go to adoption. He has done this almost 40 times now. In a post on his Facebook page, The Critter Room, on 24 July 2013, he writes:

The Plight of the Foster Care Provider

The first thing that people typically think about when they hear that someone is fostering kittens, puppies, etc. is “cute fuzzy babies!” It’s hard not to feel like rainbows & flowers when you’re looking at a tiny creature that only recently came into this world, still unable to care for itself.

For the Foster Care Provider, we feel the same way, but we also face a world in which the skies occasionally darken. It’s not easy fostering animals - you dedicate many hours of your own time, pouring a little of your very soul into each tiny creature, only to say goodbye to them a couple months or so later as they are adopted into what we hope to be a good home. Then there are times that the foster is too sick or too weak and despite our best efforts pass from this world.

Sometimes, we’re told to distance ourselves to prevent from being hurt - but that’s not possible, and we couldn’t even if we tried. People foster because they want to make a difference for an animal, to give them a better chance at finding a home to live out their lives with love & contentment. To best prepare the fosters for such a future, we have to spend time with them, interacting with them, showing them that it’s okay to trust people, to love people - which wouldn’t be possible if we kept our distance.

Fostering is chock full of rewards though! Watching the animal open their eyes for the first time, taking their first steps, learning to run before learning how to stop - the milestones of their development met. Watching a semi-feral transition from being extremely fearful to curling up in your lap to sleep, watching the eyes of their adopters light up when they first hold their new family member.
They fill our lives with glee as we take care of them until the day comes when we say goodbye - a day that is always bittersweet. For the first time fosterer, they look into their heart & soul, to see if it is strong enough to endure it again. If they find it so, they start the process anew. For some, their heart couldn't bear to part and they adopt their fosters - we dub them "Failed Fosterers" but there's never any malice in it for we secretly wished we did as well.

This expresses very well the attitude that makes Foster Dad John a good person.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Marriage equality as a matter of principle

The discussion regarding the legality and social acceptability of same-sex marriages in the US and other countries touches upon some fundamental matters of principle.

As I see it, people's outlook on life is positioned on a spectrum between two poles. At one end there are universal values, derived from feeling empathy with other human beings and considering everyone equal. People with these values consider things like slavery, racism, and discrimination against individuals or groups to be evil. They believe everyone should be treated the same way.

At the other pole are group-specific (often religious) values held by people who consider their own group and way of life to be somehow superior to other individuals and groups, and who identify closely only with people similar to themselves. Their values tend to be derived from the group's traditions, and are sometimes based on the way society was understood in the past.

When someone makes a statement about what is or is not acceptable, we can always ask why. So when someone says "marriage is between one man and one woman", we can ask why they think that is the case. The answer will often come down to the idea that marriage involves having children. However, not all marriages result in children, not all children result from marriages, and same-sex couples can use medical advances to have children of their own, or adopt children, if they wish to do so. So this explanation makes no sense.

If people with this position are more honest, they might say that they are just uncomfortable with the idea of people who are so different from them. However, feeling uncomfortable does not justify discriminating against people. By wishing to be married, same-sex couples are demonstrating that they are actually similar to the majority and want to have a normative lifestyle.

Here in Israel we are very far from having marriage equality, even for heterosexual couples, let alone same-sex couples. Most people don't like to admit it, but in matters of marriage Israel is a theocracy. Couples can only get married in a religious ceremony, and this means that couples who do not want a religious ceremony or are of two different religious backgrounds cannot get married. Among Jews, only Orthodox marriages are legally recognized, and there are certain limitations on who can marry whom (for example, someone descended from the priest class cannot marry a divorcee or a convert).

Israel recognizes legal marriages, including civil marriages and same-sex marriages, from other countries. As a result, couples who are denied the right to marry in Israel often go abroad to get married. Other couples draw up a legal agreement that is almost, but not quite, equivalent to marriage.

Over the years there have been several attempts to introduce civil marriage in Israel, but there is a great deal of resistance and opposition from religious and traditional groups.

I believe that applying the universal value of equality for all requires countries to allow civil marriage for any adult couple regardless of gender or religious or ethnic background. Religious people are free to continue holding their religious ceremonies, but should not force their values on others who do not share them.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Don't kill Haifa's wild boars!

For the past few years I have enjoyed watching from my balcony the wild boars who visit our garden at night during the spring and summer. I consider it a privilege to be able to watch them from my home.

These animals have no natural predators, and have traditionally not been hunted for food in this area, since the local Jewish and Moslem population consider pork to be unclean for eating. The boars' natural habitat is the mixed woodland of Haifa's forests, hills, and valleys. As humans have encroached on their living areas, they have, in turn, ventured into residential areas where they can forage for food.

Here is a video Ivor filmed of a sounder (family group) of boars in our garden back in August 2011:

Now it is reported that the Haifa municipality is allowing the hunting of wild boars in residential areas in an attempt to cull them. Some residents dislike the boars because they dig up people's gardens. Others are just afraid of meeting large animals in the dark. There has also been an argument that boars could cause traffic accidents. So far I have only heard about accidents with boars on dark intercity roads, and I don't think there have been any within the city, where streets are better lit and cars drive more slowly.

I strongly object to shooting the wild boars in the city. The boars lived in this area before humans did, and we have to coexist with them. They don't cause enough damage or pose enough of a risk to humans to justify murder. At this time of year the young are still nursing and dependent on their mothers, so killing the mothers would sentence the young to starvation. I also believe hunting with guns should not take place within residential areas due to the risk of shooting humans or pets or damaging property.

Please sign this petition to oppose the shooting of boars in Haifa (in Hebrew):

Thursday, May 30, 2013

How to make DVD commentaries interesting

We don't have a television, but we do buy DVDs of films and television series to watch on the computer. One of the benefits of watching DVDs is the extra features they contain, including "making-of" documentaries and commentaries. I have learned a lot about film-making and story-telling from these features.

Originally, it was usually the director who recorded a commentary. Film directors are considered the auteurs of the film, and have overall artistic control. Later, other team members also started recording commentaries, including producers, writers, and actors. As commentaries have become a standard item on so many DVDs, I have found out what sort of things I find interesting, so here is my personal guide to what makes DVD commentaries interesting to me.

First of all, it would be good to know when the commentary was recorded. Sometimes it seems that the DVD commentary was recorded before the film was released, so the makers don't yet know how the film was received by the public. Since the DVD is usually released 6-12 months after the cinematic release, it seems to me worth waiting to see the public's reaction, and then perhaps some of the criticism can be addressed.

A commentary should be both educational and entertaining, telling the audience how the film was created and why certain choices were made. The speaker should remember that the commentary is aimed at the viewing public. In some cases, speakers like to give credit to various members of the cast and crew. This is fine, but it should not turn into a mutual admiration club. Actors in particular seem to love praising each other's performance, and telling viewers what lovely people the other cast members are in person. This is not relevant to the viewers and seems gossipy. Speakers should also have with them at the recording a complete list of the names and functions of everyone involved so they don't have to say they forgot someone's name.

Directors can give the viewer an overview of the entire film, and also discuss various aspects of the film-making process. They are usually capable of explaining the decisions they took in an interesting way, perhaps because throughout their work they have to explain everything to the other team members. Writers can focus on how the story was originally written and constructed, and how the various other elements available in film played into the story-telling. When the story is adapted from a novel or other previous work, it can be interesting to hear in what ways it differs from the original, and the reasons for these differences. Producers are very familiar with decisions regarding things like filming on location or on set, special effects, and how cast and crew were recruited. The role of the producer used to be less well-understood than that of the director, but perhaps these commentaries and documentaries are helping to change this.

Actors are often the least interesting of the speakers on commentaries, and I think they would do well to think in advance of how they wish to present their craft to the viewers. For example, I would be interested in knowing when the script was revised, when certain lines were improvised, and how the actors thought they were portraying their characters. Actors can have some interesting insights into the characters they play and their motivations. In some cases, actors speak in different voices or accents in the film, and then it would be fun to hear how they acquired the necessary accent, whether it involved dialect coaching for this particular film or was something they already knew how to do.

Actors like discussing the locations and sets, their costumes, the weather during filming, and when they were acting to a green screen. It could also be interesting to know what they were actually eating or drinking in scenes involving eating and drinking. Sometimes they have to learn particular specific skills for a film, such as playing an instrument, riding a horse, sword fighting, etc., and viewers might enjoy hearing about their training process and how much is the actor's own performance and how much is a stunt person or double.

To conclude, I would like the speakers to think of the DVD commentary as a chance to educate viewers about their particular crafts and skills, and to explain the roles of various team members, techniques, and other factors in making a complex collaborative piece of art.

I look forward to seeing how commentaries on DVDs evolve in the future.

Friday, May 17, 2013

How others see us

This week I had the opportunity to see how someone else saw me. Her impression of me was based on some memories of the time we spent together, and I was a bit surprised by how imprecise her description of me was.

One of the things we have to learn as we mature is that others don't see us the way we see ourselves. The way others see us often says more about them than about us. Their perception of us is greatly influenced by many factors, such as how similar or different we are to them, the circumstances of our acquaintance, and even trivial things like the associations they may have with our name from knowing other people with the same name.

There are also differences in how important others are to us and how important we are to them. The more sociable people have a larger number of acquaintances in their lives, and consequently, perhaps each of these acquaintances is of lower importance to them, while for people with fewer contacts, each one may play a larger role. We have to accept that apart from life partners and personal friends, there may not be mutual equivalence in the importance of our less close relationships to us and to the other party.

We all want to be understood, and most of us try to present ourselves in a largely honest and genuine manner, perhaps with some tendency to show the more positive sides of ourselves and sometimes conform to expectations. So it can be surprising to discover how easily we can be misunderstood and misrepresented.

Some of these misunderstandings result from people's different values. We all like to assume we are right, and that others think and behave, or should think and behave, the way we do. But we have to be aware that what seems to us like normal behaviour may seem to others very strange. They will interpret it in light of their own values.

In general, the more time people spend with each other the better they should get to know and understand each other, particularly if they want to be friends. This will involve some explaining and discussing of values and motivations. But there are people who are less empathic or less capable of seeing others as they really are, and so it can be difficult to get them to understand you.

We will not be understood by everyone we encounter, nor will we be liked by everyone. The great diversity of human personalities is a source of constant fascination, but it can also be frustrating, particularly when someone views you, for their own reasons, in a negative fashion you consider completely unwarranted.

The question is: how important is it to be seen as we really are? In some situations it can be very important, while in others it might be a waste of energy to try to get someone to understand. Mature people know when to accept that the way others see us is beyond our complete control.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spring flowers

The hot weather at the moment means that spring is probably almost over. Here are some photos of this year's spring flowers in our area.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Iain M. Banks - Surface Detail

Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail, Orbit, 2010.

Spoiler alert! This post will reveal details of the plot.

This novel takes place within the Culture universe, and deals with two of the most evil things possible, slavery and torture.

The first theme involves the character Lededje, who has been legally owned from birth, and is marked as a slave by an advanced form of tattoo, known as intagliation, which marks her entire body down to the cellular level with a sophisticated pattern.

The second theme involves taking the mind-states (recordings of people's minds) and placing them in virtual realities that recreate hell, so they can be tortured. These mind-states are complete conscious individuals, given virtual bodies that can experience pain, and the civilizations that employ this technology use it as a posthumous punishment and as a social deterrent.

We follow the story of a non-human character, Chay, who has volunteered to send her mind-state into a virtual hell in order to return to reality and expose the existence of the virtual hells in her society. Eventually she ceases to believe in reality and accepts hell as all there is. Her story touches upon the question whether hope is a good thing in bad circumstances.

A war has broken out between civilizations that use these virtual hells and those that consider them immoral. The war is conducted in virtual realities, in a "confliction", and it has been agreed that if the pro-hell side wins they will continue to have hells, while if the anti-war side wins, all the hells will be abolished. The Culture opposes the hells, but has stayed out of the conflict because it is considered such a dominant force that it would almost certainly have won the confliction. We glimpse this war through an anti-hell fighter called Vatueil, whose mind-state is loaded into the confliction and lives through various virtual campaigns at various levels of technology.

Another character is Yime, a Culture citizen working as an agent of the Quietus, an agency dealing with the mind-states of the dead and with the virtual afterlives. Her involvement in the plot is related to what happens to Lededje, who is murdered by her owner, Veppers, and since her civilization does not use the mind-state recording technology, she is surprised to find her mind-state suddenly becoming conscious aboard a Culture ship. She is given a new body, without her intaglia, and aims to return to her planet to get revenge on Veppers. Yime is supposed to intercept her.

The story follows these characters, concentrating on the details of their journeys while allowing the Big Picture to develop around them, and connections to become apparent. Readers can enjoy the story on both levels, and some attention to the politics of various civilizations will help understand the build-up to the climactic ending.

As in many of Banks' works, many moral questions arise. First of all, it should be clear to the reader that Banks, along with the Culture, is on the anti-hell side, and rightly so. The torture of intelligent minds can have no justification. This being the case, the Culture's refusal to get involved in the confliction seems immoral, and perhaps the author is arguing against this sort of "neutrality" sometimes claimed by countries unwilling to get involved in disputes they see as not affecting them directly.

The question of slavery, of owning another person, is not directly discussed in such detail. It is part of the legal system in the civilization where Lededje was born, and her story demonstrates the character of the sort of person who would enjoy owning people.

Another moral aspect is the vast superiority of the Minds (AIs) in the Culture over biological
people. While life within the Culture would seem ideal for most people, there is always an awareness that things are controlled by the Minds in the ships and habitats, and that they treat the biological citizens in a rather paternalistic way, sometimes as pets, sometimes as immature creatures who need to be guided. The ships are always among the most entertaining and sometimes annoying characters in the Culture novels, making me wonder whether I would enjoy their company and wit, or find my life meaningless in comparison with their superiority.

Yime's story shows how someone can be manipulated, and Veppers' story shows that even an evil person can sometimes do something positive, even if for the wrong reasons, but that positive action does not compensate for the evil in this case.

I enjoyed this novel very much, and even more on the second reading. It presents a complex story through engaging viewpoint characters, many of them strong females, and reaches a satisfying ending. Recommended.

On a sadder note, I recently read that the author Iain Banks is terminally ill. I would like to wish him peace in his final months, and hope that he can take comfort in knowing that his work as a writer has enriched the lives of millions of readers. He can look back upon his achievements with satisfaction, knowing that he has contributed something of value to the world, for which readers, and the many writers he has inspired and influenced, are grateful.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lag BaOmer - rethinking traditions

Today is Lag BaOmer. Tonight all across Israel there will be hundreds of bonfires, mostly attended by children. While this may seem like harmless fun, I think several things about the traditions of this holiday should be reconsidered.

First, I want to point out that I will discuss here the modern, secular, Zionist celebration of Lag BaOmer, leaving aside the religious festival with its traditions, which would obviously be more difficult to change.

I first encountered Lag BaOmer after I came to Israel at age 9. My class met in the afternoon a few days before to "collect planks" for the bonfire. I wasn't quite sure what this meant. When I arrived, someone had "borrowed" a supermarket trolley (cart) to carry the wood in, and we went around building sites stealing the wooden planks they used in construction work. Then the wood we had stolen was hidden in someone's basement so that other groups of children wouldn't steal it from us before the night.

I was shocked that we were stealing, but was told that this was all part of the tradition. I soon realized that parents, teachers, and society in general were all complicit in this stealing, treating it as a natural part of the holiday. Some building sites now prepare piles of planks for the children to take, leaving them outside the fence so that the children won't endanger themselves by walking around the building site itself. Since that is the case, I would suggest changing the tradition slightly, to going around asking for planks of wood rather than stealing them. It would also be better to "borrow" the supermarket trolley by asking permission to take it for a few days, making sure it is returned, and perhaps even leaving a deposit. Some supermarkets lose a lot of money when their trolleys are taken for various reasons, and this holiday is one of the times when this happens.

My next problem is with the fires themselves. I know that bonfires can be fun, but they are not always "harmless fun", as each year people are injured (burns and smoke inhalation) and property is damaged. This year it is particularly hot and windy, and the firefighters have called on people to have smaller fires and keep buckets of water handy, but I doubt that everyone will comply.

Having so many fires on the same night causes a massive increase in air pollution. Just a week ago, Israel marked Earth Day with public awareness-raising events, including Earth Hour when people were asked to turn their lights off for one hour. Having a festival that encourages air pollution so soon after raising public awareness of the environment seems counterproductive.

The fires are said, in the secular tradition, to represent the signal fires used in the Bar Kochba revolt. However, signal fires would be in high places, rather than on the beach or in the few open spaces remaining within cities. Also, signal fires would probably not be used for roasting potatoes and marshmallows.

Wood is a rare commodity in Israel, and I believe the planks are imported rather than made locally. It seems particularly uneconomical for wood planks to be shipped here from overseas and instead of serving their purpose in construction end up being burned.

Instead of just asking people to abandon this tradition, I was wondering if it could be changed. Perhaps instead of bonfires we could have candle-lit processions. I once witnessed a candle-lit procession at Easter in Crete, and it can be a touching display, with people passing the light from candle to candle. I imagine there would be some resistance to adopting what would be seen as a foreign, non-Jewish tradition. But it would be appropriate to the idea of signal fires, cause less damage and pollution, and encourage cooperation among people rather than competition over who can have the biggest fire, and using candles would not require children to steal anything.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How to avoid entitled behaviour

A term that seems to have come into use recently, in the particular meaning I will describe below, is "entitled". The term originally meant something like eligible, having a legal right to something. It is now sometimes used to refer to people who expect or demand to receive what they want. Instead of the thing they are entitled to resulting from some external source granting them a right, it is now something internal, their own desire, that creates their sense of entitlement.

Readers who enjoy a book sometimes demand that the author write a sequel, as soon as possible. But they are not actually entitled to make this demand. Their enjoyment and appreciation of the book might motivate the author to write a sequel, but this is the author's own choice.

People often say "I'm entitled to my own opinion". Yes, obviously people can hold whatever opinions they want. The question is how they express these opinions, and how this behaviour influences their interactions with others.

Sometimes people say "It's a free country" when they try to justify their inconsiderate behaviour, such as talking loudly on the phone on public transport. This is not what that sentence means! Even in a free country people should be considerate of others. Society involves give and take, and those who take more than they give are not going to make themselves welcome.

The Internet has made so much content available for free that many people now feel entitled to receive whatever they want, in digital format, for free. This has led to piracy of copyrighted material and a loss of earnings to copyright holders, and to a more general argument about the meaning of copyright. This problem is far from a generally accepted solution.

Even when content is free, people still sometimes display a sense of entitlement. They ask for their favourite blog, podcast, or video series to be updated more often, or they feel they can post critical and offensive comments.

In the area of economics, the term entitled seems to be applied by different sectors to each other. The wealthy, and also libertarians, seem to object to state benefits for society's weakest members, arguing that these people become "entitled" and therefore don't make any effort to improve their lives (finding jobs, getting education, limiting the number of their children, etc.). But benefit recipients are entitled to these benefits, in the original sense of the word, and while some may exploit the system in various ways, I don't think they all consider themselves entitled in this new sense.

At the same time, the wealthy are often seen as entitled because some of them have received their wealth through inheritance, and in most western countries the burden of tax on the wealthiest segment of society has been decreasing. The wealthy are a strong group with political influence that has enabled them to reduce the proportion of their income that is paid in tax as a contribution to society.

As the wealth gap grows, both sides are calling each other entitled. This results from the difference in values and attitudes between those who have financial security and those who will always be struggling.

The sense of entitlement stems from placing one's own wishes above those of others. People wanting to avoid entitled behaviour would do well to think before making demands, and ask why they believe they deserve something. If the answer is basically "because I want it", this is entitled thinking.

Part of being a member of society is becoming aware of the different wants and needs of others. Sometimes what you want is not the most important thing to other people, and the best way to get what you want is not to act as though you deserve it automatically. If there is someone else involved, a more practical way to get what you want is through polite persuasion, and even then, sometimes you have to accept that you will not get your way. Instead of saying "The author owes his readers a sequel", try explaining how the book influenced your life, and perhaps this will be more persuasive. If not, accept that the author has moved on, and you can move on too.

Instead of making demands on others, try working on yourself to become a really worthy person. You have to earn the "right" to make claims on other people.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Is news bad for you?

I have just read an article by Rolf Dobelli, entitled "News is bad for you - and giving up reading it will make you happier", published in the Guardian. Since I wish to discuss several points raised in this article, readers would be advised to read the whole article first.

On the face of it, the writer makes a strong argument against people's tendency to become addicted to the news. I must admit that I am probably one of these addicts. However, when I read the individual points, I found myself thinking of counter-arguments. While this may in itself be an example of confirmation bias and my own unwillingness to change my opinions and behaviour, I have decided to work through this issue in writing and see where it takes me.

Under the subtitle "News misleads", the writer describes examples of the news presenting the wrong sort of information, choosing dramatic and personal stories, emphasizing rare risks and thus creating a distortion of our risk assessment, and he ends this section:

If you think you can compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.

I find it quite offensive that he assumes everyone is incapable of thinking clearly enough to know that the stories reported in the news are rare events, and therefore are less likely to be relevant to our daily lives. Comparing everyone to bankers and economists is also misleading. Bankers are not motivated by seeking the truth but by increasing their profits in whatever way possible. Their reality is distorted because the rewards are great and the risks are low even when they fail, because they get bailed out. As we know if we read the news. And most economists seem to me to be ideologically motivated and have a real confirmation bias in the way they view reality. Intelligent readers need not necessarily have these cognitive or behavioural disadvantages, and arguing that if these two professions can't think straight nobody can seems to me to be rather unfair.

The section "News is irrelevant" contains the following challenge:

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.

I would say that in a democratic regime voters have a duty to know what their representatives and candidates say and do, so that they can make a more informed decision on how to vote. I know many people who changed their voting decision shortly before the elections based on what candidates said they would do. Or perhaps voting in a democracy is not "a serious matter" to this writer. I also believe that some understanding of the economy can help individuals make decisions like when to buy a home or which career path to choose.

In addition, the idea that news is irrelevant seems to reflect the life of someone living in a country that is not experiencing war and constant existential threats. Here in Israel, the news is such an addictive drug precisely because at any moment your city could be attacked by rockets or suicide bombers, or a larger-scale war could break out. I admit that this causes most Israelis to live with a high level of anxiety, but surveys have also found a high level of happiness here compared to some less anxious societies.

The next section of the article is entitled "News has no explanatory power", and states:

Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists' radar but have a transforming effect.

I strongly disagree with this idea. I have accumulated facts from news stories that have helped enrich my understanding of the world. For example, I believe many people in the west may have learned about the city of Timbuktu only when it came under attack by militants. Learning about the history and culture of places far from my everyday reality contributes to widening my horizons. Yes, you have to pick and choose from among the details presented in news stories, and in some cases it is worth doing a bit of your own research and study. Also, the "slow, powerful movements" that are so important do sometimes get some news coverage, eventually, precisely when their "transforming effect" is being felt. For example, protest movements such as "Occupy", and the growing acceptance of marriage equality among the public in developed countries. People who follow the news intelligently can form an impression of long-term trends.

One of the strongest arguments presented is in the section "News is toxic to your body". I accept that it is probably true that news triggers the limbic system and creates chronic stress. But later in this section "desensitisation" is listed as another side-effect. Personally I know that I am not desensitized, and often still have serious emotional responses to upsetting news. Yes, I can shed tears when something terrible happens, even if it's completely "irrelevant" to my life and happens far away. But just deciding not to know about the news as a defence mechanism seems morally wrong to me, and perhaps to display a lack of empathy and compassion. If you'd rather not know that there are bad things happening in the world because it might make you stressed or upset, that seems rather selfish.

The section "News increases cognitive errors" discusses confirmation bias, the tendency to pay attention to things that support your beliefs and ignore those that don't, and story bias, the preference for things that "make sense" even if they don't reflect reality. These cognitive errors are very real, and people need to learn to evaluate the information they receive carefully. However, I don't think that avoiding the news will make us into more rational people. If you have a confirmation bias, not being exposed to a wide variety of facts and opinions will only strengthen it. And a statement like:

Any journalist who writes, "The market moved because of X" or "the company went bankrupt because of Y" is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way of "explaining" the world.

is somewhat unhelpful. Yes, journalists may be simplistic, as may some readers. But those who think more deeply would see through the "explanations" offered in some news stories and form their own conclusions.

The next section, entitled "News inhibits thinking", ends with the statement "News is an intentional interruption system".This may be true, but it is not only news that acts in this way. We are constantly interrupted by phone calls, emails, and other distractions. In fact, I have been interrupted by phone calls and urgent emails while writing this blog post. News is not the only medium that contains hyperlinks, either. The short attention span has been created by many things, including television (which I don't watch). So avoiding the news does not guarantee an end to this sort of interrupted thinking.

I don't disagree that "News acts like a drug", but with the description of how this drug changes people:

The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless.

I may be in a minority of "news consumers", but I still read books and long articles and can maintain my focus for many pages and even hours. I agree that current social and technological trends encourage skimming and multitasking, and I have written against these trends in the past. We should all know when it is necessary to skim something, but also when concentration and focus are required. Blaming the news for this change seems superficial.

The following sections have the titles: "News wastes time", which may be true, but so do other things, and if you are able to learn something from the news I don't see it as a waste; "News makes us passive" - not necessarily. Sometimes a news story can spark a public reaction or a personal decision; and "News kills creativity", in which the writer states:

I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter.

I would reply to this that some of the most creative and imaginative science fiction writers I know are inspired by news stories to create extrapolated future societies and technologies. Their work is informed by knowing the present, and while I can't confirm that they are "news junkies" as such, it wouldn't surprise me. I believe creativity can draw from many sources, and among them could be news, along with reading fiction and non-fiction, learning about the world and society, and creating connections between various pieces of data.

The article ends with two important passages:

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don't have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

So now the writer is saying that it's not news as such that is bad for us, but the way news is currently presented in the media. Nobody would dispute this argument, and reform of the media would be of benefit. If news consumers feel the need for this sort of change, then the way news is presented to us will follow.

And he adds on a more personal note:

I have now gone without news for four years, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first-hand: less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights. It's not easy, but it's worth it.

I am happy for anyone's happiness. But I don't think you can conclude that this would work for everyone. Just as different people benefit from different sorts of nutrition, so people can find out whether they need news, and if so, it what form and frequency they consume it. How is saying that avoiding the news makes you happier any better than saying, to quote an earlier example the writer disparaged, "The market moved because of X"?

My own personal take on the news is as follows:

It is important to know what is happening in the world. It is not essential to take the news at face value, but instead, it is important to evaluate it carefully, within the context of the reader's other knowledge about the world. Knowing what is happening locally can be relevant to decisions individuals make about their lives, and to their participation in the democratic process. Learning what is happening in the wider world can expand people's perspectives and help them find both what is common to all people and what differences exist between groups.

Many of the accusations Rolf Dobelli makes against the news should be directed at a wider range of current social trends, including the "always-available" world of mobile phones and email; social media and the Internet in general; the shortening of our attention spans; and the dumbing-down of society.

Since I absolutely don't agree that "ignorance is bliss", I consider avoiding the news to be an extreme measure. I have what I consider healthy curiosity about the world, and would feel somewhat disabled if I denied myself access to information about things happening beyond my immediate surroundings.

My conclusion from thinking through this issue is that there are still many good reasons for reading the news despite the problems raised, including what I see as the responsibility of citizens in a democracy to educate themselves so they can make informed decisions about voting. News should be consumed as part of a balanced informational diet, combined with regular cognitive exercise.