Sending Footnotes

Human interaction is constructed around texts.

Sometimes these are central universally-accepted texts. In Ancient Greece the texts were the works of Homer. In Rome, they were Homer and Virgil. For much of the last two millennia, Europe and America’s text was the Bible. In Jewish communities, it was the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the Talmud.

Texts serve as short-cuts. They provide us with ready-made phrases, metaphors and parables which are both accessible and instantly understood by the people we’re talking to. They give us a sense of shared consciousness.

In the 20th Century, our shared texts in English were Shakespeare and Dickens, and then the new media of cinema and television gave us new texts; the latest soap opera, drama or sitcom gave us our stock phrases and handy references – “it’s like that time on…”. You could watch the latest film or TV episode and talk about it the next day with your friends at work or school.

The Internet has changed some of that. There is too much text: too many videos, too many jokes and articles and comment threads; too many TV programmes to watch and books to download. Of course, the Internet has also spawned its own responses – memes and injokes that constitute their own sort of shared text – but these are all about form rather than content.

All of this is really cool, because instead of talking about things we all already know, we can share the new exciting stuff we read or saw or heard today. That’s great. But because it robs us of a shared text, it means we’re frequently making references that the other people in our conversation don’t understand.

Of course, this has always happened in some circles. People of different ages have different shared childhood and adolescent experiences, for example. An even more striking case is with people from different countries. I’ve spent enough time around Americans by now to get some of the references to Schoolhouse Rock and Twinkies, and here in Israel I am slowly picking up the society’s texts.

Frequently, then, I talk to friends and find myself referencing something that they don’t know about, whether it’s because they aren’t British or are a little older or younger than I or whether it’s just a video I saw that they didn’t or an article I was sent that they weren’t.

So I’ve started to keep a mental list during a conversation of all the things I’ve mentioned, suggested or referenced. Then, when I get home, I send footnotes – links, references, a little commentary. It’s becoming a habit and one that I quite enjoy, even if it does take a little time to curate the links.

Of course, I’ve no real idea if anyone actually follows all the material that I send them. I doubt it, because it can be a lot, with references to hundred-hour TV shows and weighty series of books – and who has that kind of time when all they wanted was to have a cup of coffee or go to a party – but I like the idea anyway, and it forces me to revisit the things I think I remember or know about, and sometimes reinterpret them altogether.

XKCD Citation needed

Posted in Life in Israel | 1 Comment

The Israeli Public and a Strike on Iran

When I came to Israel nearly a year ago,  there was intense speculation that an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was imminent. Working inside the Jewish community in the UK, we had lots of worries about a possible strike, Iranian retaliation and the political and security ramfications. British news, Israeli news, world news were all talking as if a strike could happen any day.

One of the first questions that my friends in the UK used to ask me about moving to Israel was “How is it over there? Is everyone worried about Iran?”. And I answered, no. Nobody was talking about Iran. It wasn’t being debated or overtly worried about. The topics of the day in Israel flowed seamlessly one into the other: The social justice movement, the Gilad Shalit deal, evacuating Migron and other unathorised settlement outposts, Haredi enlistment, new elections,  a new coalition, Egypt and then social justice again.

In all this time Iran never left the headlines. It was frequently the lead story on the news here. But it somehow hadn’t permeated the country’s consciousness. It was a bit like the whole population was in denial about the fact that the air-raid sirens (which every town in Israel has) could start ringing at any minute to alert us of a counter-attack, giving us just 30 seconds to get to our bomb shelters or secure rooms.

There also wasn’t really any debate about the wisdom or necessity of any strike. That was odd for two reasons. Firstly, retired senior Israeli security figures kept popping up on the news to say they thought a strike was a bad idea – the sort of thing that would normally start a public debate. Secondly, though, Israelis debate everything. All of the issues I mentioned above were and remain contentious. Was the Shalit deal a sacred trust to a soldier in captivity or was it a price so high that we should never pay it? Would forcing Haredim into military or civil service unify the country or pull it apart? But on the Iran issue, there was no real debate at street level. The Op-Eds and interviews didn’t filter down to café chats. It just wasn’t there.

In the last few weeks, that seems to have changed dramatically. Suddenly I seem to hear nothing else but Iran talk – and again I don’t mean on the TV. Cab drivers will ask my opinion on the issue, old men playing chess or cards talk about whether a strike would be successful, people chatting at Kiddush after the Shabbat synagogue service question whether Hamas would join any retaliation and what Syria would do.

I’m not sure what’s caused this. Yes, the Home Front Security has stepped up its work clearing bomb shelters and giving out gas masks (I got mine), but this has actually been ongoing for months. Maybe it just took a long time to sink in. An Iran strike is a big deal. So, of course, is a nuclear-capable Iran.

So everyone is a bit more nervous, but that’s probably to the good. And the question is being debated, and that’s probably good too. Of course, this being Israel, the debate isn’t always the most respectful or mature. But it’s a start.

I realise that I haven’t mentioned my own thoughts on an Iran strike. I’ll deal with that in another post.

Posted in Israeli politics, Life in Israel, Middle East News | 1 Comment

The Times, They Are a’Changin

The Times of Israel was launched in February by David Horowitz, former editor of the Jerusalem Post. It’s an English-language news and comment site for Israel and Jewish-related news. About the same time as it launched, Haaretz’s English-language site began putting most of its content behind a paywall. This left a gap which the ToI immediately started filling.

The ToI seems to be modelled on the Huffington Post, the US news and megablog site founded by Arianna Huffington. The HuffPo was sold to AOL $315 million in early 2011, which provoked some controversy: many of the hundreds of unpaid bloggers felt that Arianna had taken their work and basically profited from it. Of course, 18 months later, the Huffington Post is still doing fine and has no problem attracting bloggers to write for it.

A similar debate was sparked about the Times of Israel’s bloggers after the President’s Conference, when Naomi Elbinger wrote a blog on her own site about whether ToI’s bloggers should primarily identify with their own platforms and outlets or with the ToI itself:

In a very short time, The Times of Israel has attracted over 100 bloggers that regularly publish on their site for free, using the Huffington Post-esque assumption that the very fact that your name appears on their site is payment enough….

…what struck me as most strange about the Times of Israel blogger crowd at the President’s Conference is that they introduced themselves as “My Name is X and I blog for the Times of Israel.”

Heck, they even got up in front of Alana Newhouse, a major personality in online Jewish publishing, and instead of promoting their own identity and brand, instead of letting her know about their own blog, business or cause, they promoted the Times of Israel.

All of this is my way of saying that last week I had a blog published on the Times of Israel. It’s about Israel and the Olympic Games, a subject relevant to the ToI’s readership. You can read it there.

I hope to write the occasional blog there. It has a large and increasing audience, and comment editor Elie Leshem has helped build a supportive bloggers’ community. But, to answer Naomi above, it’s not going to be my only platform. I’ll post blogs there when it’s relevant, and when I feel that they would benefit from the wider audience. In this case, for example, the subject was related to my day-job and so, though I wasn’t getting paid for writing it, neither was I doing it completely for nothing.

This blog will carry on as normal. I might sometimes write for other publications. I also ghost pieces pretty regularly (reasonable rates, email me for details). And I’ll also occasionally blog for the Times of Israel. It’s a big Internet out there.

Posted in Internet, Jewish world, News, the media | 1 Comment

The Burgas Bombing

Israeli tourists were killed today in a bomb attack on a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria. We don’t know how many were killed yet – at least three, but there are reports of up to seven fatalities with 20 wounded. We don’t know for sure how the bombing was carried out, though initial reports suggest that either a suicide bomber carrying a backpack boarded the bus and exploded, or there was a bomb placed in the luggage compartment.

And, of course, we don’t know who was responsible. It could be far-Rightists, though they don’t usually use suicide bombers. It could be an al Qaeda-linked bomber or a home-grown Salafi-Jihadi.

But the biggest suspicion has to be on Hezbollah and Iran. Iran has, in recent weeks, launched or almost launched terrorist attacks against Israelis in India, Thailand, GeorgiaAzerbaijan and Kenya. A Hezbollah operative was stopped planning an attack in Cyprus earlier this week. Today is the 18th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, a Hezbollah operation jointly organised by Iran.

The thing is, Hezbollah is a member of the Government of Lebanon. Iran is a sovereign state. These aren’t guys hiding in caves in Afghanistan. We know where they are and who they are.

Bulgaria is a member of the European Union. An attack on tourists – teenagers – like this is an Act of War. It’s not 1994 any more. All countries, and especially EU countries, will have to take real steps against Iran, Hezbollah and possibly even Lebanon if there is good evidence that they’re behind it. Can Bulgarian athletes just compete against Iranians in the Olympics a couple of weeks after they bombed their country? Can EU Governments sit in international forums like it’s business as usual? Can they allow Iranian and Lebanese embassies to remain anywhere in the Western world?

Enough. No country can ignore this anymore. Yes, this was an attack on Jews and Israelis and Jews and Israelis should respond to it. I’m sure the Israeli Government will find ways of responding, whether we find out about them or not. But we shouldn’t forget that it was also an attack on Bulgaria, Europe and the West as a whole. We shouldn’t give anyone a free pass for an act of war just because they were aiming for Jews.

Posted in Jewish world, Middle East News, Middle East politics, World news | 3 Comments

Inventions by my friends

I have talented friends. At least two have book deals and are furiously writing while living off their advances. A few have been elected to Parliament. Some are advising ministers or writing Middle East peace plans.

On balance, this is a good thing, even if it does make me feel rather inferior by comparison.

Some are inventors. This is a good time to be an inventor, because as well as the traditional routes to Venture Capital, crowdfunding is really taking off. Two cool companies run by friends of mine have used Kickstarter to help launch new gadgets:

Triggertrap

My friends Haje and Matt invented Triggertrap, a series of cool ways of triggering cameras. The project got a $75,000 cash injection on Kickstarter, even though they were only looking for $25k originally.

There’s a Triggertrap Mobile app, which has a load of ways of triggering an iPhone or iPad’s camera using the device’s internal sensors. Some of these are pretty obvious, like timelapse, sound or motion triggers. Some are a bit more unusual, like face-recognition or magnetism. Some combine sensors with effects, like using GPS to create a “distance lapse” video, Long Exposure HDR, or taking photos of stars.

A photo by Milosh using Triggertrap’s HDR features

The app can also be used with a dongle and cable to trigger an SLR camera instead of the iphone’s internal camera.

There are also two triggertrap machines – the V1 (which is basically a little computer full of funky sensors) and a build-it-yourself version.

Triggertrap has already been used in some cool projects. If you’re interested in taking photos in interesting ways then it’s worth a look. Unfortunately for technical reasons it doesn’t work on Android (yet) but all iOS users should go for it.

Ringbow

Ringbow is, basically, a joystick built into a ring. This is really useful: for touchscreen gaming, for presentations and for anything where you need portable fine control. It’s a project of my friend Saar and his business partner Efrat, two Israeli entrepreneurs.

Some Ringbows

 

Ringbow isn’t available yet. It’s still at the Kickstarter stage seeking starter funding of $100,000, but they’re confident that they’ll ship in time for Christmas. As I write this, the project is 98.8% funded with ten days to go,The project has now met its funding target, so they’re doing pretty well. I’m looking forward to getting mine. If you want in, you might still have time to support it.

Posted in Gadgets, Internet, Technology | Comments Off

Re-entry experiences on landing in the UK

I just landed in the UK for a few days and had two re-entry experiences in the course of leaving the airport.

Default Languages

Since moving to Israel I’ve tried to integrate with society and learn the language. This wasn’t easy, and after my first few months I realised that I’d have to do more. New immigrants to Israel receive five months’ free tuition in Hebrew, which I completed two weeks’ ago. I have those little Hebrew letter stickers on my keyboard, and the Language Bar in my system tray, and sometimes I get stuck in the wrong language and type gibberish fora while before I notice.

My keyboard with Hebrew stickers

I’ve spent significant time in Israel before – five months as a young teenager, ten months as a pre-University Gap Year – but both of those were continuous, with no trips home. But as Natasha Roth observed on Cartoon Kippa today, it’s different to actually be based in Israel and visit the UK or other places.

One difference is that, much like on my PC, it turns out that there’s a Language Bar in my head and it gets set to the wrong default language.

The Language Bar

Olim – Immigrants to Israel – joke that they lose their English faster than they learn Hebrew. I’m still too new for that to happen, though Hebrew makes a small vocabulary do a lot of work – for example, the word עגלה, which means “cart” but can be used for basically anything unpowered on wheels – a supermarket trolley, a pushchair (stroller) for children, one of those little things on wheels that kids put blocks in, or any number of other possibilities. This caused recently caused a problem for US/UK comedy Episodes. As Nathan Jeffay put it:

Hebrew, with a particularly high number of words with multiple meanings, and complex linguistic relationship between the ancient and modern language, poses particular problems. I recently bought a bottle of grape juice. Kosher laws require that fruit is only picked from a plant over four years old – pick it younger and the fruit is called orla and can’t be eaten. Seemingly an online translation threw up the more common meaning of orla: my bottle reassured me that I could drink it “without fear that it contains foreskin”.

That’s not my issue, yet. I can talk to people I know without any problem. Strangers, though, get the default language – and the default language is set to Hebrew. After running over the bus conductor’s foot with my luggage, I automatically said סליחה “slicha” rather than “sorry”, and I tried to buy a chocolate bar in Hebrew and stared at the guy behind the counter for a few seconds like he was the moron for not understanding me before realising my mistake and leaving (without the chocolate).

I doubt this is a Hebrew-specific issue and probably happens to anyone who’s based in a country that speaks a different language. But it makes trips back to the UK a little more challenging.

Crossing the Road

Another major difference was in crossing the road. In Israel, there are strictly-enforced jaywalking laws. Many people won’t cross the road on a red light even if there isn’t a single car visible on the road, and certainly people don’t cross in front of oncoming traffic, even if it’s safe to do so.

One effect of this is that Israeli drivers are freaked out by people who come from countries with no jaywalking laws (like the UK). When I cross perfectly safely, the oncoming car will often wildly honk at me despite the fact that I’ve already made it to the other side and have been there for five seconds or more by the time he passes.

Pedestrians and drivers seem to operate in separate worlds in Israel. A driver will either stop for you at a Zebra Crossing or she won’t, but she will almost never make eye contact.

In the UK, on the other hand, drivers and pedestrians are constantly communicating, with head-signals, hand-gestures and significant glances. Everyone knows that when a pedestrian raises a hand it means “thank you”, and that you’re supposed to say “thank you” to drivers who stop at a Zebra even though they legally have to.

Again, this all occurred to me while crossing the road on my way out of the airport. Lasting maybe two seconds, I had a meaningful gesture-based conversation with a van-driver who let me cross the road with all my bags.

 

Posted in Life in Israel | 3 Comments

Two-Tier Exams

One of the commonest criticisms of Michael Gove’s proposals to reform England and Wales’ examinations is that it would recreate a two-tier system: more prestigious O-levels and less-good CSEs, instead of the universal GCSE that exists today.

The problem with this argument is that many commentators don’t seem to realise that GCSEs are themselves a two-tier examination system.

GCSEs have a wide grading system. There are nine possible grades obtainable at GCSE, A* (the best) to G and then U, which means Unclassified. Technically, anything other than a U is a pass-mark. Despite this, there is a de facto acceptance that a ‘Good GCSE’ is one with a grade of A*-C. School league tables measure the number of students obtaining A*-C. Many colleges, universities and employers consider anything below a C as effectively a fail-grade.

This is acknowledged in the structure of the GCSE exams themselves. Many GCSE subjects – including core subjects English and Maths – are formally examined in two different papers: Foundation and Higher.

The Higher track has possible grades of A*-D. Any student that takes GCSE Higher exams (and coursework) and doesn’t get at least a D fails all the way with a U grade.

The Foundation track offers grades of C-G. The absolute best that a student in the Foundation track can do is to get a C-grade, considered the lowest “good GCSE”, but it’s actually pretty hard to fail a Foundation exam outright. Anyone who actually gets a C in a Foundation paper probably shouldn’t have been sitting it; they should have taken a Higher paper and possibly achieved a higher mark.

In many schools, GCSE subjects with tiered exams are taught in ability-streams or sets, with the top classes being prepared for the Higher paper, the bottom sets learning material for the Foundation course, and maybe students in middle classes being assigned to a course by their teachers depending on performance.

This initial streaming, though, would usually happen at the start of the GCSE course, at age 14.

Interestingly, the Government’s own DirectGov website describes these as “tiers”:

…you have a choice of two tiers: ‘higher’ or ‘foundation’. Each tier leads to a different range of grades. Your subject teacher normally decides which tier is best for you.

Many private schools won’t offer Foundation papers at all and won’t sit students for them, so journalists who didn’t come up through the state system and whose children go to private schools might not have encountered them. Perhaps that’s why they haven’t been mentioned very much.

So is the Gove proposal really that different? I don’t know, and certainly there is at least some fluidity in the current system. A student who improves rapidly can be moved from the Foundation to the Higher track. Perhaps this could  be preserved betwen CSEs and O-Levels?

On the other hand, given that there’s already a two-tier system we might as well treat it with some respect. What would be more impressive: a low A in a future CSE or a high E-grade in a GCSE today? Nick Clegg’s answer would presumably be the latter, but it’s not clear to me that he’s right.

Posted in UK News, UK politics | 2 Comments

Thoughts on the Arab revolutions

A few thoughts after sitting in a panel discussion on the Arab revolutions, with speakers from Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, the USA and Israel, as part of the Israeli Presidential Conference.

Jordan

Though Jordan isn’t undergoing a violent revolution (or a violent repression of a peaceful revolution), there are now weekly protests against the King and Government. If and when Syria falls, the pressure on the Jordanian regime will become irresistible. Democracy is coming to Jordan.

And we have to ask what that means, because Jordan has a majority-Palestinian population. What would a democratic Jordan with a Palestinian majority mean for the peace process and the Israeli – Palestinian conflict?

At the height of the Arab Spring last year, I asked this question to people in the UK’s Foreign Office. I got two reactions: first, anger. “Are you saying that Jordan is Palestine?”. I wasn’t. And then denial “we don’t believe that Palestinians would vote in a democratic Jordan. That would be abandoning their own aspirations”. To which my only response was “hmm”.

Syria

Everyone here now agrees that the fall of Assad is now in Israel’s strategic interest – even if the new Syrian government is a belligerent Islamist regime. The end of Assad would massively cut Iran’s ability to project to power and would cripple Hizballah. This is new; a year ago, there were many Israeli commentators who preferred the devil they knew. Despite all this, there’s a feeling that Israel can’t and shouldn’t do anything to intervene in Syria.

The Bigger Picture

The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were originally triggered by economic factors: unemployment, the price of food and fuel, and lack of economic development. They morphed into anti-regime protests that succeeded. But the underlying triggers – prices, unemployment, investment – are still there. In fact, the instability in these economies is likely to worsen all of these problems.

The global financial crisis isn’t going away. What happens in a year’s time when their standards of living are continuing to fall? Maybe they will be happier because they are free, but Maslow might remind us that you can’t eat a ballot slip. Unless political freedom is combined with economic improvement, the future could be very frightening.

Posted in Middle East politics, Politics | Comments Off

A note from the management

You might have noticed that it’s a bit quiet around here.

There’s a reason for this: I’m not a blogger – well, not a proppa blogga (© Sion Simon). There was some point a few years ago when I wanted to rant about something but needed a platform a bit bigger than Twitter, so I set up a Tumblr. After writing a few pieces on the AV referendum, it seemed like it was a good idea to have a central web identity, so I set up this website.

Usually, I only write a blog when it I have something to say – something that hadn’t been said better by anyone else. I fact-check as I go along, sometimes disproving my whole point on the way (these blogs don’t get published). Sometimes by the time I’m halfway through, someone else has made the same point and I don’t have much to add.

These strike me as good guidelines, though I’d probably publish a bit more if I wrote a bit quicker.

However, I did originally decide to limit myself to only a few topics: news, politics and technology. I was keen not to let the blog deteriorate into an online diary: stuff meant for my friends’ consumption only goes on Facebook.

In September, I moved to Israel. Those people who know me on any level will know this, and those who don’t might have figured it out from Twitter. Many new immigrants maintain “Aliya diary” blogs as a way of keeping in touch with friends back home. They’re usually good and I enjoy reading them but, again, they’re not designed for a wider readership. So I didn’t go that way either.

All that said, the original narrow focus of this blog isn’t working for me any more. I’m going to write about a wider range of topics. I’ll do by best to make them accessible to people without a background in whatever I’m talking about, but I might not always succeed.

This means:

  • a bit more-frequent updating (NB Some posts will probably even be less than 2000 words)
  • A bit more variety (my next post will be on Jerusalem’s public transportation)

Finally, if this is putting you off, you can always subscribe to the RSS feeds for the political topics instead. Or just don’t read me. There’s a whole internet out there.

POSTSCRIPT: If you think you should be on the Blogroll on the right then you probably should be. Let me know. 

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Happy Birthday Spectrum

The ZX Spectrum is 30 today, making it a few months younger than I am.

Apparently, the Spectrum was the first home computer to break into the mass market in the UK due to its low price-point and decent catalogue of software. But I didn’t know any of that at the time.

I don’t remember when we got our Spectrum, but I vaguely remember that we didn’t have one and then at some point we did. I don’t think it was new when we got it, and it wasn’t our first computer – there was an old Commodore PET in a cupboard that I had never seen. The Spectrum was a tiny thing, with its famous rubber keys and assortment of wires.

(years later, when I was aged 8 or 9, I remember having an argument with my schoolfriends who insisted that the keyboard of a PC was only a keyboard and that the computer was a big box that the keyboard plugged into. I told them they were being ridiculous. If my old computer was small and fitted in a keyboard surely, I argued, the modern computers of 1989 would have been even smaller).

It had to be hooked up to the TV using a special output cable. Software came on audio-tapes but It didn’t have a tape recorder built in – we had to connect one to it using a line-in cable. The joystick (and we used an old Atari 2600 stick at first) had to plug into a special Kempston card that had to be plugged into the machine. If anything was knocked or dirty then it all wouldn’t work.

Loading a game took time – from a minute for a short one to several minutes for a long, new one – and if a tape had more than one game on it you had to fast-forward it first. Then we’d hear the famous loading sounds – the low header pulse while the screen’s border flashed cyan-and-red, followed by the high-pitched screeching data sound while the screen-border went yellow-and-blue. And when it was finally done we could play a game. If we were lucky.   If we were unlucky we’d have to start again.

I remember playing games with my Dad – the old text-based adventures at first, like the Hobbit and the Hitchhikers’ Guide, both famously hard, and the classic Batman game. I remember the excitement when we got Elite, and the frustration when the special Lenslok copy-protection meant we had to look at the screen though a special piece of plastic to play the game – and it didn’t work so we had to get a new one. Eventually I got and played my own games: the Dizzy series, Mercenary, Rainbow Islands, even Tetris with its eerie music (not the Russian music you know from the Gameboy – this music).

We had all these old computer magazines, and some of them had programming tips in them. I started writing BASIC programs young; I even wrote a sort-of-functioning version of a game a bit like Snake. We bought a game that let you make other 3d games for the Spectrum. I played with it for hours but never made a game that worked.

I also bought the classic magazine Your Sinclair, famed for its sense of humour as the Spectrum gradually slid towards obsolescence. The sarcasm, surrealism and self-deprecation I learnt from YS have served me well in life.

At some point we bought a newer Spectrum – with a built-in tape recorder – and we scoured carboot sales, buying up tens of games for a pound as people sold off their old tapes.

Eventually we got a Sega Mega Drive and a SNES and we put away the Spectrum for good. But, 30 years after its release, I realise how much it changed my life. I learnt how to program, how to play co-operatively and how to read technical manuals, and I think back to those Sunday mornings watching my Dad play Elite and remember what a good time it was (of course, these days he still plays more computer games than I do).

I leave you with this video which reminds me of the Good Old Days.

Posted in Technology | 1 Comment