Archive for January, 2007

The wrong way to write book reviews

January 10th, 2007

The basic concept behind reviewing books is fairly simple. You read the book, then you write the review. Not that complicated.

The details may vary, of course. How much of the plot should be included? What does the review focus on? How much of it should be subjective opinions, and how much objective descriptions and analysis? There are plenty of things that can change from reviewer to reviewer, and from review to review.

But the main and basic details, these never change:

  1. Read the book.
  2. Write the review.

Now, without the second part, there won’t be a review. So obviously you can’t write a book review without, well, writing the book review.

The first part isn’t quite a tautology as the second, though. But it sure seems to be required, no?

Well, no, apparently not for everyone.

A book reviewer on a Swedish newspaper has got himself into hot water for writing a review of a book that has not been written. To make matters worse, Kristian Lundberg claimed the book’s plot was “predictable” and said the characterisations were one-dimensional.

It was supposed to be a real book, by a real author. It was announced in the catalogue of the publisher. But it wasn’t actually written. Meaning that it wasn’t actually published. Meaning that nobody, including the reviewer, read it.

I do hope that this is an isolated case by an isolated jerk, and not a common phenomenon. Blah.

NASA found life on Mars! And Killed it! Not!

January 8th, 2007

There have been some reports lately on a claim that it’s possible NASA‘s space probes that landed on Mars 30 years ago missed signs of bacterial life.

The theory raised is that it is possible life developed on Mars in manners different from what is usual on Earth, and that it is possible that, for some of these hypothetical types of life, the attempts by the probes to locate micro-organisms may have missed those organisms and maybe killed them.

Not exactly a big claim. Nobody actually knows, or has any factual basis to suspect, that there were micro-organisms there. If there were some, of a type the probes weren’t set to find, nobody can say if they were of a type that the experiments would also kill. Not that killing a few microbes is such a big deal, but it does make for a more interestingly sounding story.

Basically, a lot of non-news, unless you’re planning the devices for the next attempt to locate life on a different planet, and want to take more options into account.

But accidentally killing the same micro-organisms you try to find, that makes a decent headline, no? So all the various reports on this that I read (Plenty of stories, but all pretty much based on the same AP report, so they’re unsurprisingly very similar) start with claims like this:

Two NASA space probes that visited Mars 30 years ago may have stumbled upon alien microbes on the Red Planet and inadvertently killed them, a scientist theorizes in a paper released Sunday.

Which is slightly sensational and contains a lot of hyperbole, given that we don’t know any of this, but isn’t really that out of line for modern media reports.

Until, that is, the headlines get to some clueless reporter who is unprofessional enough to take the hype at face value, and out of context.

So on the radio we had this young women, who sounded genuinely shocked and outraged as she reported the latest news: “NASA found life on Mars! And killed it!“.

Really. That is what she said.

Cue the mental images of NASA‘s probe finding several prospering cities full of happy Martians, and nuking them all into oblivion. And then of course taking pictures of the empty wasteland, and sending back reports that there is (now) no life on Mars. And they’ve kept us all in the dark for 30 years, hiding their nefarious xenocide.

She didn’t say that, of course, but it was the obvious thing to understand from her tone about the shocking discovery.

Thankfully the next thing they aired was an interview with some scientist who was asked to comment about NASA‘s wholesale slaughter of the Martians. He actually did know what this all was about, and explained it.

So sorry, folks. NASA did not find life on Mars, and did not kill it. Or, in any case, they still keep a very successful cover-up if they did.

Enough with the NIS already

January 3rd, 2007

The correct abbreviation for shekels, the New Israeli Shekel included, is ILS.

Yes, that’s ILS. Not NIS. Even if NIS seems like a much better acronym for New Israeli Shekel. NIS is neat, it fits, it makes sense, but it has the single disadvantage of not being correct.

ILS was the code for the old Israeli Shekel, and it still is the code for the New Israeli Shekel. Prices are in ILS, not in NIS.

No international bank will offer to exchange any currency for NIS, or will have a clue about the exchange rate. But they will be happy to exchange your ILS.

And the prices you see on those online stores? In ILS, not in NIS.

Please, please, please, stop putting NIS after every time you write to me a price of something in English. It drives me mad. I don’t care that most Israelis will understand what it means. I don’t even care (well, I’m saddened by it) that more Israelis will understand what you mean by NIS than what you mean by ILS. It’s just not the currency code.

This rant was intended as a public service for Israeli readers, and for myself. I expect anyone else on the world who has a reason to use Shekels will know that the currency code for Shekels is ILS and not NIS. It’s just most of the locals here who insist on sticking with this pesky NIS abomination. And as I wrote above, it drives me mad. Thank you for your attention.

The Gregorian New Year’s Eve in Israel

January 3rd, 2007

A few days ago was the new year’s eve, by the Gregorian calendar. These days the Gregorian calendar is very common, so I expect it merited some new year’s eve celebrations even in places that officially go by other calendars.

Like here in Israel, where there’s the Jewish calendar. Officially, anyway. The Gregorian calendar isn’t official, but it is the de-facto calendar used almost anywhere. Large parts of the public sector (Meaning anything government related) use the Jewish calendar on official documents, but even those usually come with the Gregorian dates.

Because hardly any person uses the Hebrew calendar, or care about it, for any reason beyond knowing when the holidays are, or for religious purposes. It may not be very politic to say so, but that’s the case. Almost anything and everything goes by the Gregorian calendar.

One of the dates which people do notice in the Hebrew calendar is our very own new year’s, “Rosh HaShana”, for the start of the Hebrew calendar. So people feel very uncomfortable calling December 31st the new year’s eve. It’s the new civic year’s eve, or something like that. The new tax year’s eve, if you’re an accountant with a sense of humour.

Many people don’t bother celebrating. Many more do celebrate, but like to pretend they don’t. It’s not really celebration, just a special meal, or meeting with a few friends for a party and drinks. Not a celebration at all. Honest.

It can be quite amusing.

What is stranger is another term for the evening. Sylvester. Which has a very curious position here.

Globally it’s not a very common name for new year’s eve these days. It is named after pope Silvester I, who died on December 31st.

But that term is currently popular, as far as I know, in only two places. Germany is one. And Israel is the other.

And what makes it so strange that his name is used to refer to the new year’s eve in Israel? Beside the (not insignificant) fact that Christianity isn’t a big religion here, it’s the fact that pope Silvester was a very big anti-semite who was responsible for a large amount of prosecutions of Jews.

Not the kind of person who usually get happy events celebrated in his name. Not in a country mainly full of Jews, anyway

So the name always strikes me as peculiar. If it was the common term world-wide, that would be obvious. But it’s not. Ask most Americans, or most non-German Europeans, about Sylvester, and they won’t have a clue what is it that you refer to.

That’s not hyperbole. I tried. I also know Israeli people who wished friends abroad a happy Sylvester, only to be met with a question of what is it exactly.

And the name is so prevalent here that it always surprises people. That is what people here know as the term, the only official term, for the Gregorian new year’s eve. So when you wish a foreigner to have a happy foreign holiday, by the name of that foreign holiday, you expect to be understood. And you rarely are.

It also causes problems, of course. Because enough people here actually know who pope Silvester was, and so refuse to celebrate Sylvester. An understandable enough position.

Which can be seen expressed in different ways. Some just refuse to treat the new year’s eve as if something happened. These are the same ones who actually don’t celebrate it at all, not even with a token nod, or a happy new year’s wishes. Others just make doubly sure that they always use the full title of “new civic year” whenever they mention it, emphasising the civic, as if it makes the distinction itself rather than mentioning the new year instead of the name of Silvester.

The large waves of immigration from former USSR countries also drastically increased the scope of the celebrations of new year’s eve. Here it was given token celebrations, while there it was celebrated full-scale. And since the celebrations are, in a large sense, civic and not religious, people keep celebrating it here with the same enthusiasm.

Though there is one problem with this that I never managed to get a good explanation of. The main calendar in most USSR countries when these people emigrated was the Julian one. But here they celebrate on the Gregorian one. Doesn’t it feel like they’re holding the celebration a few days too early? Sure, the Gregorian calendar is the one used here. But by this logic the Jewish calendar is the one used here, so why not celebrate new year’s eve together with Rosh HaShana? It seems inconsistent.

Then again, celebrations and holidays don’t have to be consistent, do they?

Another important aspect of the new year’s eve celebrations, as in many other places in the world, involves drinking a lot of alcohol. That is true for a very large percentage of all those who celebrate. Any excuse for a party. Which makes January 1st one of the non-holiday (officially acknowledged holiday, anyway) days with the highest work absence level in the year.

Quite a lot of people take a vacation, because it’s either that or get to work late with a killer hangover. My office was half deserted when I came to work, and that was the general case throughout the country.

Also, this year a lot more people celebrated new year’s eve than in the previous years. It’s a bold statement, I know. But I base it on facts. Well, on deductions from fact. Mainly, on the fact that the cellular telephony networks were unable to cope with the amount of “Happy new year” SMS messages that were sent close to midnight. Almost anyone I spoke to, and who tried to send such messages, reported getting back a notice that the messages were not sent, and had to retry.

Make me wonder how the systems will cope with wide scale messaging in cases of emergency. Not so well, I believe. Oh, well, here’s a wish for the new year then: May there be no large scale emergencies.

There, that should cover that.

Oh, right, new year’s resolutions. A widespread tradition, where people make bold statements on what they want to do differently, and better, next year. And which people rarely follow through, and usually sheepishly renege on but promise to do better next year. Hmm… OK, new year’s resolution: Not to make any new year’s resolutions I will fail to follow through on. Heh, I think I finally succeeded. Cool.