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.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Foster Kitten Cam

Over the past year or so, I have been watching the Foster Kitten Cam, a webcam showing live video of families of kittens in a foster home. This webcam is provided by Foster Dad John, who volunteers at Purrfect Pals cat rescue organization in Washington State.

When a pregnant cat is rescued by Purrfect Pals, they wait until the kittens are born, and if all goes well, after a few hours or days, the mother and kittens are taken to John's home and housed in a special room he keeps for the foster families. At first, they live in a cage, and the mother is able to get out to eat, drink, and use the litter box. The camera provides quite a close-up view of the family as the tiny kittens nurse and gradually open their eyes and learn how to walk.

When they are big enough, they are let out of the cage into part of the room enclosed by a fence, and given toys to play with and cat furniture to climb on. As they develop, they are given cat food and a litter box. Eventually, the kittens learn how to climb over the fence and explore the rest of the room. By this age their personalities emerge. Every day, John visits a few times and spends a while with the kittens, observing them, playing with them, and getting them used to being with people.

Upon reaching two months of age, if they are healthy and weigh enough, the kittens (and mother) are taken to be neutered and spayed, and soon afterwards they are offered for adoption (to WA residents only).

Throughout the process, the camera is live all the time, and viewers from around the world can see everything that happens. The view is "uncensored", meaning that viewers can see the real lives of these cats, sometimes including bodily functions or sickness. Unlike human "reality shows", this cannot be faked and the cats don't know they are being watched (although when they stare right at the camera it sometimes feels like they do!).

At any given time there are usually about a thousand viewers or more watching. Sometimes links to the webcam "go viral" and suddenly there can be over twenty thousand viewers. Some viewers become regulars, making the webcam a part of their daily online lives. The site also features a chat room, so viewers can discuss the kittens (and other things) while viewing. I don't participate in this chat, as this is not the sort of social interaction I am seeking, but I sometimes read it, and appreciate many of the regular participants. The chat room has created friendships and provided emotional support to many viewers.

I have been enjoying the opportunity to watch several families of kittens, and my appreciation has many reasons.

First, what John is doing is a good thing. He keeps the kittens' best interest as his top priority, and helps the rescued mothers, some of whom had been stray cats, become socialized and ready for adoption.

Second, it is educational. While most viewers might start watching because kittens are "cute", the experience of watching John's interactions with the cats and the way he tracks their development is educational. He sometimes also answers viewers' questions live on the webcam during his visits to the room. Most people rarely have experience with kittens. Even those who adopt kittens soon have adult cats. So it is a privilege to be able to observe the kittens growing up and learn about their stages of development.

Some of the viewers have reported what the webcam means to them. While many have cats of their own, or other pets, some are unable to own pets because their landlords don't allow pets, or because they are allergic, or for other reasons. For them, the webcam provides a substitute pet. For some, the webcam provides comfort after losing a pet (or even a human loved-one). Many people say that watching cats is relaxing, which I believe has been scientifically proven. And a few viewers have been inspired to foster cats themselves, so the webcam is promoting this volunteering aspect.

One important aspect of fostering is that you have to become attached in order to nurture the cats, and then you have to let go when they go for adoption. This is something many people say they would find difficult, and John has made it a rule that he never keeps any of the fosters. He seems to find the strength to give up the kittens because he knows they will be going to good homes, and because he is dedicated to their best interest. I believe this is something we can all learn from. Many of the families who have adopted the cats and kittens have either made Facebook accounts for them, or at least send John occasional updates about them, which he posts on the Critter Room Facebook page for the viewers to see.

I have watched Miranda's kittens, the Scientist kittens, the Spice kittens, Ripley's kittens, and now the Cosmo kittens. Each mother cat and kitten has a unique personality, and I feel enriched by having a connection, albeit temporary, to these cats. Like most viewers, I choose my favourites and imagine being able to adopt them. I experience mixed feelings when they get adopted - sad to see them go, and happy they will live in a good home with loving humans - but I know that within a few days or weeks another family will appear on the webcam.

The Foster Kitten Cam is important to me because (obviously) I love cats. My two cats are aged 11 and 13, so it is a long time since I rescued them as kittens. I also enjoy the authenticity of the experience and the ability to get to know these cats and kittens over several weeks. In the same way that I prefer novels over short stories and like to listen to whole albums rather than individual songs, I also enjoy forming a longer and deeper acquaintance with the cats I watch online, rather than seeing short edited videos of some particular moments of a cat's life.

I want to take this opportunity to thank John for everything he does. Beyond the good work he does with the cats, his webcam is making a significant positive impact in the lives of many viewers around the world.

Readers who wish to help support such fostering activities can donate to Purrfect Pals, and also vote for them every day in the Shelter Challenge. Alternatively or additionally, support your local animal rescue organizations in whatever way you can. I would also encourage people looking for pets to adopt rescued animals, and to consider adopting an adult rather than insisting on a kitten/puppy.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Gratitude vs. Appreciation

One of the positive habits encouraged by various personal development trends is developing gratitude. This means being aware of all the things you have to be thankful about, and learning not to take them for granted. This is perhaps the opposite of the feeling of "entitlement" many people are said to have.

For a long time I agreed with this idea, but recently I have changed my mind and decided it needs a bit of refining. I would prefer to feel appreciation rather than gratitude. The difference might be subtle, but it seems important to me.

Giving thanks is part of social interaction. When someone does something or says something that is helpful or supportive in some way, it is polite to express gratitude. This is known as the principle of reciprocity. While the balance between what you receive and what you give in return is not always necessarily even, the idea is that if people do something for you, you should at least try to do something for them, even if it is just saying "thank you", smiling, or acknowledging their action in some way that shows you appreciated it.

However, when this idea is extended into having a general disposition of gratitude, this has some implications. Ideas like the Law of Attraction have encouraged people to ask the universe for what they want and to give thanks to the universe for what they have. This seems to me very similar to the idea of prayer, with the same sort of relationship between the individual and the divinity/universe. It seems to reduce the individual's agency into the ability to emote, expressing either a wish for something in the hope of obtaining it, or a positive attitude when this wish comes true.

My problem with this idea is that it diminishes the individual. Let's say I wish for success in my work, and I succeed. According to this sort of thinking, I succeeded because I wished for it and the universe granted my wish. The actual effort I put into my work is not relevant here, because it is the universe that can grant wishes. I have to thank not myself but the universe for the success, in which my own effort was less important than my emotional state.

This sort of thinking also has a more negative implication. When something bad happens, this is because the individual must have been wishing for something bad (perhaps unconsciously). This seems to me like blaming the victim. While positive thinking is important, and negative thinking can have negative effects, it seems to me to be going too far to say that any accidents or diseases or other tragedies are necessarily the result of the person's negative thinking.

I consider this belief system, like many others, to be over-simplistic. It tries to propose one explanation for everything that happens. Whatever happens in your life is what you want to happen. It doesn't accept that there can be random events, coincidences, and that external circumstances can sometimes be more powerful than the individual's desires.

At the same time, I knew it was important to me to feel a positive feeling about things I have in my life, and not to take them for granted. So I decided to change the description of this emotional state from "gratitude" to "appreciation".

By appreciation I mean valuing something positively and not taking it for granted. I have an awareness of how the things I have were achieved. In some cases, it is appropriate to feel gratitude towards people who helped me, such as parents, teachers, friends, and sources of inspiration. In some cases I can feel pleased in my own achievements and development. But I do not feel the need to thank an abstraction like the universe. Things happen in the universe, but not through a higher power. I consider things to happen through human agency and also through random chance.

It is important to feel appreciation for my own efforts and development, and not to consider them irrelevant, with all my success being the gift of the universe. It is also important to know that negative things can happen and this does not mean I should blame myself for bringing them upon myself.

I go through life with a disposition of appreciation of all the good things in my life, and with the awareness that they should not be taken for granted.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Redefining the class system

During the past week the Israeli media have been discussing what it means to be "middle class" in Israel.

This debate was sparked by our new Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, describing a meeting he had with Finance Ministry officials, in which he told them to discuss the financial situation of a fictional middle-class family. He described the wife as a school teacher and the husband as working in high-tech. They owned a house and travelled abroad once every two years, but could not expect to be able to buy a house for any of their three children.

At first, the discussion focused on the sum he mentioned as representing the income of a middle-class couple, NIS 20,000 per month. If this referred to their net income, this would actually be the income of a couple in the 9th decile, rather than a couple around the 5th decile, which would perhaps be more "middle". Even if this was the couple's pre-tax income, they would still probably be quite a bit above the average income.

I should explain that here in Israel the statistics tend to divide the population into deciles, groups of 10%, and then describe the income of each of these ranks.

In Israel, class refers largely to people's economic status, though other factors such as educational level and cultural interests, are also taken into account. There are other categorizations, such as degree of religious observance and ethnic background, which are used to describe groups within the Israeli population, but these are not necessarily linked to class, and the wealthy among any category could be considered upper class thanks to their money alone.

The current discussion focused on the Minister's policy of seeking to help the "middle class", described as professionals who pay their taxes and contribute to society (also by serving in the army and reserve forces), but still struggle to reach financial security. However, so many different people consider themselves middle class that this has created confusion. Those around the 4th-6th income deciles, a group you would expect to represent the middle of society as judged by income level, are actually relatively poor, and in many cases will never afford their own home.

The sort of family Minister Lapid described represents a wide segments of society, probably most of the 7th-9th deciles. These people indeed earn more than the average wage and have more security than those below them. However, there is a growing sense that even such incomes are no guarantee of financial security, and that members of this group are less well-off in various ways than people who were in this group 20 or 30 years ago.

It is well-known that Israel has one of the highest levels of inequality in the OECD, with a small minority of very wealthy people who pay relatively low tax rates, and a larger proportion of low income families compared with other countries. There are various social reasons for this, and attempts are being made to increase the participation in the workforce of various groups. However, recent governments have not been attempting to raise the tax contribution of the wealthiest group, and the media often focus attention on CEO's earning tens or over one hundred times the wages of the average workers within their companies.

All of these factors make it difficult to create a consistent definition of "middle class" in Israel, and it seems that this is also true in other countries. The assumption that the population is divided into "working class" people with unskilled jobs and low educational and cultural levels, "middle class" people with professional jobs and higher educational levels, who are consumers of culture and can afford things like holidays, and "upper class" people who have family wealth and connections with the political elite, seems to be becoming less relevant.

In particular, there are fewer people who fit the definition of "working class" in our changing economy, and the middle class now contains a wider range of different sub-groups.

A recent BBC survey in the UK has redefined the British class system into seven groups. While these groups would not apply here in Israel, they seem to use interesting criteria, such as the sort of friends people have and their use of social media, along with their cultural interests. It would be interesting to see this sort of research conducted in Israel.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Neal Stephenson - Reamde

Neal Stephenson, Reamde, Atlantic Books, 2011.

This large novel is a present-day adventure story spanning the globe, with a wide cast of characters, and touching on many contemporary issues of interest. When I was younger, I would have felt daunted by a novel of over a thousand pages. Now when I see such a novel by an author I appreciate, I look forward to a long visit within that author's imagination.

The book's title is the name of a computer virus, a distorted form of the term "readme". Much of the early book focuses on a massive multi player online role playing game, T'Rain, its creation involving two very different fantasy authors, the way it is used by players to launder money in the real world, and the virus attack on it. All of this setup, along with the title, led me to expect that this would play a major role in the story, with the action taking place on two levels, in the game and in reality, as with Stephenson's famous early novel Snow Crash.

However, while the game serves an important function within the story, and in connecting some of the diverse characters, most of the action takes place in the real world. Perhaps the gaming world is now so familiar to many readers that it was not such an interesting setting. Perhaps the author thought that some of the readers of a mainstream present-day thriller would be overwhelmed by the gaming side of the story. Or maybe the story just went in a different direction. I was a bit disappointed by this, but came to accept it.

Among the main characters are Richard Forthrast, the founder of the company that created T'Rain, his niece Zula, and various people involved in kidnapping her and trying to rescue her. Without giving too much away, some of these include Russian mafia members, Chinese hackers, Islamist terrorists, and undercover agents. The story takes place in many different countries and employs various modes of transportation and communication.

The plot seems to be strung together by a series of coincidences. In some cases these makes sense within the context, but sometimes they seemed a little far-fetched. The characters are clearly distinguished and act in accordance with their motivation. So while the story itself sometimes stretches the reader's suspension of disbelief to the limit, my interest in the characters, their actions and interactions, and in seeing how the whole situation could eventually be resolved, maintained my engagement with the novel.

The pacing of the story is good, with the sections spent with different characters or groups of characters well-balanced and serving to keep the reader in touch with actions happening around the same time in different places. Uncharacteristically for Stephenson, there are relatively few "digressions", except for some flashbacks, and most of the exposition takes place naturally in conversations between the characters.

The novel contains elements that will interest a wide range of readers: action, adventure, international terrorism, gaming, undercover anti-terrorist work, politics, and travel. All these elements are mingled with realistic descriptions and engaging characters. The individual scenes have a vivid realism that makes them believable, even though when you draw back and look at the entire plot the coincidences show again and make the story as a whole seem less likely. This made for a strange reading experience, with the work feeling realistic when seen up close, particularly when identifying with the characters, but more fantastical when viewed from a more distant perspective.

The novel's ending was dramatic, and brought together a wide range of elements and characters. At the same time, it seemed to emphasize the problem with the coincidences once more, with the terrorists encountering just the right combination of opponents at just the right place and time. It also felt, to me at least, as though it was making a political point, perhaps taking a rather libertarian position. This makes sense in the context of the book, but if this were a real story being reported, I could imagine the political exploitation of these events. Of course, authors are free to make political points if they wish, but since they are also inventing the events that make the point they are trying to make, it seems rather self-serving.

I enjoyed this novel and recommend it to a wide range of readers, including those who may not have read Stephenson's previous novels because they were classified as SF or historical fiction. Its present-day setting makes it accessible to a wider audience, and may introduce new readers to one of my favourite authors. However, this is not, in my opinion, his best work. But even a novel that is not his best is better than most of what is being published today. I look forward to seeing what his imagination will bring us next.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Some personal consumer preferences

Some recent shopping trips have made me think about what I prefer as a consumer. Here are some of my thoughts and preferences.

I like being treated as an intelligent person capable of making her own decisions. If I don't want something, the sales policy known as "overcoming resistance" is unlikely to make me change my mind, and, in fact, is more likely to create further resistance. When someone is trying to sell me something over the phone and I say no the third time and they continue trying, I just hang up. If it's in person, I just continue saying no, or sometimes just tell them to stop trying.

I have found that I'm closer to the "planner" end of the spectrum than to the "spontaneous" end. I often have a list, sometimes written, other times in my head, of what I need to buy, sometimes very specific, other times just a general idea of the sort of thing I need. Of course, I sometimes do buy things spontaneously, but I don't particularly like the feeling of going shopping without any idea of what I will be getting.

In terms of the shopping experience, I prefer shops to be uncrowded and relatively quiet. I have refused to enter, or quickly left, fashion shops where loud and unpleasant (to me) music was playing. I am quite independent and prefer to make my own choices, so shop staff who keep asking if they can help me can be really irritating. On the other hand, it those cases when I do need help, it can be annoying not to find any staff member available.

Among the various types of bargains and discounts, the best is always a reduced product price. To find that something I intended to buy costs less than before feels like a success. When products are offered in 1+1 or buy-one get-one-free deals, this is also worthwhile, unless they are food products with short expiry dates, or things that are used very rarely. Once it gets to 2+1 or buy-two get-the-third-free, this seems less worthwhile.

Some shops have offers where you spend a certain amount and get another amount free. This is only worth it if I already intended to buy enough products to reach the qualifying amount. In some cases I know that it would be difficult to find sufficient products to reach that amount, so I don't bother. In general, when a discount or offer has too many conditions and "strings attached", it becomes less attractive.

I also find it less worthwhile to receive a voucher for use in future shopping in the same shop, especially if this voucher can only be used between specific dates. I don't find myself compelled to use such vouchers unless I was intending to shop there in any case.

I sometimes cut out or print out coupons, or use coupons that chains send me. However, if I can't find the product offered or if I don't manage to get to the shop before the coupon expires, I don't feel worried about having missed out.

I have mixed feelings about chains offering membership or loyalty cards. I would only bother with such cards in places where I shop frequently. I prefer them not to be credit cards, and don't understand the expectation that people should carry many different credit cards for the various chains where they shop. If membership cards give regular discounts on products I buy and other benefits, such as accumulating points that can be used for future purchases, they might be worthwhile.

One card that was offered me this week, in a shop I rarely visit, offered points amounting to half the value of my purchase that could be used for a discount of that value on purchases during the following month. Since I don't buy there every month, I declined. Even when membership is free, if the conditions are too rigid or if I don't shop there often it just doesn't appeal to me.

I am also conscious that these membership cards can track my purchases and create a consumer profile, even knowing which branch I visited each time. I am not too worried by this, since my purchases are probably very standard and boring. People valuing privacy would do best to pay in cash and not use membership cards.

As for online shopping, I have for many years bought books online, and to a lesser degree CDs and DVDs, and more recently digital downloads. I sometimes also buy software and computer-related items online, and in some cases I have booked holidays online. I have bought a few items of clothing online, though it is difficult to get the size right without trying things on. I have yet to try the online supermarkets that are becoming increasingly popular, and so far haven't tried bidding on eBay, for example. I may become more adventurous about online shopping in the future.

Another use of online shops is searching for items online and then buying them in the physical shops. I sometimes compare prices online before deciding where to buy something, and I also look at product catalogues of shops I intend to visit, to get an idea in advance of what I would be most interested in finding and perhaps buying.

Looking back over the various preferences I have mentioned, I think I come across as quite a conscious consumer, aware of how shops seek to manipulate their customers. I prefer to maintain control of my own decisions, and expect to be treated with respect. Perhaps I lack some of the spontaneity that some shoppers enjoy, but I don't think this is something I miss.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Vernor Vinge - The Children of the Sky

Vernor Vinge, The Children of the Sky, Tor, 2011.

This book is the long-awaited sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, published in 1992. I really enjoyed A Fire Upon the Deep, and another book set in the Zones of Thought series, A Deepness in the Sky, so I was looking forward to this sequel.

Since I don't consider it sufficient to say I was somewhat disappointed, I will have to explain why.

The book suffers from some of the typical problems of second books in series. In the first novel, much of the writer's attention is devoted to establishing the world and the characters, and to building up the plot. In a sequel, the characters and the world are already largely familiar, so there is less of the sense of wonder generated by getting to know a new setting and new people. The author has to develop and sometimes subvert what the readers already know about the characters and world.

I wonder whether at the time of writing A Fire Upon the Deep Vinge intended to write a sequel to it. The first book is self-standing and has a satisfactory conclusion. Of course, we can always wonder what happened next after a story ends. But the way the first book ended makes the sequel a very different sort of story with different pacing, tension, and tone. The fact that around twenty years passed between the publication of the two books may also pose a problem to readers.

Unlike the first book, with its many different sentient species, fast-paced space chases, and a sense of the vastness of inhabited space, The Children of the Sky takes place entirely on a largely pre-industrial planet, with the humans learning to coexist with the Tines, the sentient local species they encounter. The isolation they experience may mirror our own current experience on Earth, but they have knowledge of the extent of sentient life in the universe, and also of an approaching threat, which make their own existence both more important and more frustrating.

The story contains action, treachery, adventure, and development of our understanding of the Tines. For me, this species has always been one of the most interesting types of alien in fiction. They have bodies similar to long-necked dogs, and each individual is a collective or hive mind with typically four to six bodies, who can collaborate to use their mouths as fingers, thus solving one of the problems quadruped species would face, the lack of opposable thumbs. We now learn what can happen when a larger "pack" or individual splits into two people, and what happens to a single body surviving when the rest of the "pack" dies. However, relatively little of the story is told through a Tine viewpoint character.

The story explores a larger proportion of the planet, showing different regions and cultures. There is one surprise regarding another species, which wasn't actually surprising to me, or I expect to other readers of the first book.

One of the problems with the book was the description of long journeys, which felt slow, perhaps especially in comparison with the previous book. I understand that this reflects the experience of humans from an extremely advanced technology who are now trapped in a primitive culture. I can imagine all too easily how I would react if denied our current level of technology for the rest of my life. However, perhaps this was not the best way of portraying this to the readers.

I felt that the human characters were not easy to identify with, and some of them lacked the charm they had in the previous book. Obviously, some had grown from innocent children to cynical adults, and the new characters had motivations that were difficult to understand at first. Because many of the characters were unable to trust the people they were with, the conversations they had did not really show their inner thoughts and feeling very clearly.

There are clear indications that there will be a third book, and I hope it will resolve some of the mysteries raised in this volume, pick up the pace, and perhaps reach a conclusion as spectacular and satisfying as that of the first book. I hope it will not take so long this time!

I recommend this book to readers of the first volume, with some reservations and lowering of expectations, and perhaps those who have not read the first one would do better to wait for the third (concluding?) volume and see if it gets more positive reviews than the second before reading the whole series.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

BBC World Service Radio - End of an era

The past few days have seen the end of broadcasting of the BBC World Service Radio on medium wave from the Cyprus relay, receivable in Israel. I have found very little discussion of this fact online, and the BBC's website doesn't say anything, except for listing the frequencies for the Middle East starting on March 31st 2013, which no longer include 1323 kHz. It seems that cutting their transmissions to listeners in Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan is no big deal.

Since immigrating to Israel in 1978, my mother has been a regular, loyal listener to the BBC World Service. It helped her maintain her connection with England. She listened around the house and in her car. Now this service has ended, and she feels bereft. While she can, and does, still watch BBC television, this is not the same thing as having the radio available.

Personally, I listened to the BBC World Service for many years, and more recently have subscribed to some of their podcasts.

The formal reason for cutting the broadcasts is probably budget cuts. However, it also reflects the changing nature of radio and media in general. Nowadays, it is possible to listen to radio stations online, on a computer or mobile phone. Podcasts are also available, and have the advantage that you can listen when you choose rather than at fixed times. However, it is more difficult to do this in the car.

I have always enjoyed listening to audio, because I'm a verbal person and the audio format doesn't allow the use of visual gimmicks the way television does. When someone wants to express something in sound, the only way to do it is through language (and perhaps music and sound effects). I find, for example, that audio documentaries contain a lot more information than television documentaries, because they are not trying to find interesting visual images and atmospheric musical interludes. I also enjoy being able to do other things while listening, which would be more difficult to do while watching television. This is one reason why I don't have a television.

As the Internet became an increasingly important part of my life, I found myself listening to the radio less often, but spending an equivalent amount of time listening to various podcasts, both informative and entertaining. This is how I now consume audio. Presumably, radio is as much a victim of the Internet and people's resulting habits of media consumption as the printed newspaper.

I foresee a time in the not too distant future when there will be no more broadcasting. Everything will be available online, and consumers will choose when to watch/listen. The idea of having to tune in at a certain time to find the programme you want will seem dated, an imposition on our busy schedules that we no longer have to accept. This does mean, however, that people will have to plan what to listen to while driving, unless they use their mobile phones to stream live media.

I have mixed feelings about the technological changes that are taking place and their social impact. While I embrace and welcome many of the advantages of the Internet as a tool for research and communications, I still feel some sentimental attachment to "old" technology such as printed books and broadcast radio.

As technology changes, people have to adapt. I will have to show my mother how to listen to the World Service live on its website, and how to use podcasts. I hope this will help fill the void left by the sudden absence of a station which was like an old friend to her.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Why I dislike pranks

April 1st is traditionally a day of pranks. People try to surprise each other, sometimes harmlessly, sometimes in a variety of nasty ways. They say they do this because "it's funny", but I think it's actually because succeeding makes them feel superior to their victim.

I don't like pranks in general, and I think it's rather self-defeating to have a fixed day devoted to them, when anyone aware of the date will be on high alert when reading news stories or in any social interaction.

I have been trying to understand why I particularly dislike this sort of humour, and have reached several conclusions.

First, I don't like anything cruel or harmful. There are enough accidents in the world, and enough evil people who do cruel and harmful things but not because it's funny. I would like to discourage people from doing anything "for a laugh" when the victim will be harmed in some way, even if only temporarily. As a sensitive person, I can imagine feeling hurt, humiliated, or even violated for long after the prank was over, and never trusting the person again, and getting angry if they said "where's your sense of humour?", as they tend to.

Second, I don't think it's necessary to laugh at the stupid things people can be made to believe. The gullibility of human beings is not really something surprising or noteworthy. I don't enjoy the sense of smugness people have when they say (or imply) "Ha, you fell for it, you idiot!". There is enough false information out there without inventing things just to see who believes it.

Finally, I just generally don't like surprises. I suppose that might be because I like to be in control of my life and to have stability. So just as I don't like pranks, even the relatively harmless ones, I also don't like the idea of surprise parties and things like the sort of marriage proposals that have a whole surprise production behind them. I think people like to surprise each other pleasantly, for example with gifts, to show that they have been thinking about each other when they are apart and making a special effort. But for me the joy of a relationship or close friendship is being together and sharing thoughts and experiences, so choosing gifts together can be more fun than trying to surprise each other.

I would prefer a world with less surprises, good or bad, and more trust, honesty, and genuine communication.