Archive for the 'Current Affairs' Category

Missing the glaring similarities

March 23rd, 2009

It’s sometimes surprising just how narrow the focus of some people can be, when they compare themselves, or a group they identify with, to people who aren’t them.

People will tend to expect others to see them in a much better light than they would themselves see other people placed in the same situation. Or than how they would expect other people to see other people in the same situation.

An obvious, and loaded, source for examples around here (Israel) is how many Israeli citizens see the neighbouring Arabs and Muslims. All too many times people react quite severely to bad/improper/unacceptable behaviour from them, while fully admitting they’d behave very similarly in the same situation. And they don’t see a problem, because it’s different. Somehow. In a way they can rarely articulate.

I’ll probably, laziness permitting, write a lot more about quite a few conversations like this that I had in the past. But this particular post is about a single issue, though I did talk with several different people who feel the same as the single example I’ll present here.

This one is not about any issue specific to Israel, but rather about the rise in Islam, or in the amount of Muslims, in Europe.

I was talking with this person, an Israeli Jew, and he mentioned reading about the “problem” of Muslims in Europe. He kept on for a while about how the Europeans[1] are having a problem, how it’s becoming a large issue there, and how it’s going to end in riots and violence.

So far nothing you can’t find in the headlines of a lot of newspapers, though his opinion was certainly on the anti-Muslim side.

Then he went on to explain that he completely understands why the Europeans don’t like the Muslims . It’s because they live in their own segregations, keep their own different culture and their own different customs, dress differently, and generally try to keep themselves different and unique instead of trying to completely blend in and assimilate themselves in the local culture of the country.

Funny that. Seems to be nearly identical reasons for Anti-Semitism against Jews. Let’s say circa World War II ? Separate communities? Check. Keeping their own different culture? Different religion? Different rituals, special days, behaviour codes? Check. Different cloths? Check[2].

But according to him (another reminder, this “him” is actually several people), not liking Muslims because of these reasons is fine and understandable. Not liking Jews because of these reasons, though, was/is bad, racist, and completely unjustifiable.

I was already staring incredulously while listening to this, when I was exposed to another gem. It’s not just that these Muslims keep themselves different, you see. It’s that they plot to make everyone be like them, to take control of Europe by any means necessary, and then take over the rest of the world.

Seriously? All these people, many regular everyday people, all planning together to control the world?

No, I was told. Of course it’s not all of them. But they do what their elders and religious leaders tell them to. And those, who lead them, they have a plan, and are driving towards it.

Ahem. Right. I heard about that somewhere. A while ago. I think it was a little bit different when I heard about it, though. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, anyone?

After being persecuted and attacked by people believing such nonsensical hoaxes, I’m talking to Jews (some religious, some old enough to have personal experience) who have no problem believing the same things, based on the same proof (none whatsoever), because it is about some other group that they don’t like.

And no, I was told, of course it’s not the same. How isn’t it the same? Because The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are vicious lies, but these Muslim leaders really are out to control the world.

I admit that as a Jew living in Israel I’m not feeling very happy about growing percentage of Europe’s population being Muslim. Especially since the lack of love really does go both ways, and most of them are maybe being taught to hate me a lot more than I personally don’t like them. But this sort of tortured logic (or lack thereof), wild accusations, and outright hypocritical nonsense… appals me.

You don’t like people because of who they are, or what they believe? Fine, that’s your right. But be frank about it. And stop it there. For someone who has been, or whose parents have been, in the exact same situation, and thought it horrible, to now be on the complete other side? And to feel fine and justified about it? Not to notice the similarities? Not even after they’re pointed out to you, though it’s obvious enough that it shouldn’t be required? Enough to get me depressed about humanity.

  1. Ignoring the fact that these Muslims are Europeans, and citizens of their respective countries. None of the people I talked to seemed to pay attention to this apparently minor fact.[back]
  2. In many places, though not all. Which I suppose is the same for the Muslims.[back]

Compensating for DST, twice

September 18th, 2007

This Sunday (well, the night between Saturday and Sunday) Israel went off DST[1], meaning that the clocks had to be set to one hour earlier.

Normally I’m a very small believer in letting computers do things automatically, following the old adage that if you want something done right you have to do it yourself (rather than let a computer guess its way at it). And so usually I always set my computer not to compensate for DST automatically, and change the hour myself on the correct dates.

This year I made a mistake. I figured that changing the clock should be trivial enough for Windows XP to manage doing by itself. So I set the computer on Saturday to correct for DST automatically.

And on Sunday morning everything seemed fine. The time on the computer’s clock did indeed move an hour back, and it showed the correct time.

I went to work. I came back late at night.

And found that sometime during the day the computer… moved the time back yet another hour.

From now on I’ll get back to doing complex tasks like this by myself.

  1. In Hebrew the DST time is referred to as “Summer Time”/”Summer Clock”, and in contrast the non-DST time is referred to as “Winter Time”/”Winter Clock”[back]

Happy new year

September 13th, 2007

For anyone who lives in Israel, or who is Jewish, have a happy new year. Shana Tova.

Anyone else, well, you probably don’t follow the Jewish calendar anyway, so no worries.

A Democracy is not a Technocracy

September 2nd, 2007

There are a lot of accusations, that started to fly around after the recent war in Lebanon, against several politicians and military officers. Many justified, many not. Heck, everyone is unhappy after a military exercise which doesn’t end in a resounding success, and military actions never end in resounding successes.

This post is just about one of these claims/accusations. Specifically, there are a lot of people claiming that one of the faults was nominating Amir Peretz as the minister of defence, because he has no military background.

Now, I’m far from being a fan of Peretz. Most of what I have to say about him is not particularly nice. But this particular accusation is stupid nonsense. Not because he does have military experience. He doesn’t. But because it’s not relevant to the way we run our government.

The form of Representative Democracy we’re using is based on the idea that people vote for parties. The parties have some political agenda they’re supposed to focus on[1], and their list of candidates. Based on the relative amount of votes a party receives, the top candidates from the party go in the Knesset (parliament). The leader of the party most likely to manage to form a coalition is given a chance to do so, and if he/she succeeds then the leader becomes the new Prime Minister. And candidates from the parties that joined the coalition get appointments as ministers, based on the political dealings that were made in order to convince them to join the coalition.

Notice how nothing here mentioned particular knowledge and ability in any particular skill related to the relevant ministry? This is not an oversight. This is by design[2].

People vote for a party to represent their general goals and ideals. Maybe even based on the top candidates of that party. But which person gets to be minister of what, that depends more on the agenda of the party (If their political agenda focuses on a specific issue, ministries relevant to that issue will be something they will work for when negotiating) and overall political game, than on the knowledge and pedigree of candidates.

The minister of health does not have to be a medical doctor, or hold degrees in biology, zoology, or environmental studies. The minister of education does not have to have a degree in education, psychology, or sociology. The minister of science does not have to have a degree in physics, biology, chemistry, or math. The minister of culture does not have to have a degree in history, art, or music. And the minister of defence? No need for degree in military studies or strategy, and no need for military experience.

That’s the system. On purpose. This is why we call it a representative democracy, rather than a technocracy.

The minister needs to hold some level of public trust, even if by proxy (of the political party that was voted for). And needs to have the administrative ability to run the ministry.

For the technical knowledge the minister needs to have assistants, and advisors. The responsibility of the minister is not to know in advance about the subject matter, but to be able to find people to inform him/her about relevant topics of the subject matter. And to make decisions that fit the political agenda of the party, are good for the country[3], and make sense based on what the minister can understand from the experts and advisors the minister consults with.

Anyone who isn’t happy with it, well, has a right to. But they have to realize that their position is that they want to get rid of democracy in favour of a technocracy. Not that they want the same type of democracy we have now, except with a minister of defence that knows military. That’s hypocrisy, and intellectual laziness.

After all, if you want a professional for defence, why not in other fields? The usual answer is that it’s because defence is important. There are two problems with that argument:

  1. Education? Also important. Health? Also important. Science? Also important. Finance and economics? Also important. Keep going. Which one of them you think you can abandon and then go on and keep the country alive, and worth living in, after a decade?
  2. If a professional is a superior option for any important field, why wouldn’t it be a good idea for other fields, important or otherwise? It needs to be a good idea there as well, right? So why pick a professional just for defence?

So claiming they want a professional there, means they want a professional everywhere.

And this does not go well with our democratic idea. You can’t keep both. The current election and party structure cannot survive if you need each minister to be a credited professional in the field.

If it’s skill based, there’s no point in an election. Professionals are recognized by other professionals, and by academic institutes, not by the masses[4].

And not everyone can have a degree in everything. So, if you start by the pool of candidates that won votes in a global election, and then filter them in ministries by their knowledge, you can easily get in a position where you only have a single eligible candidate for some ministries. Not very democratic when there’s no choice. Worse, you may get in a position where you have nobody to fill a certain ministry. What do you do then?

People can claim they want a new system of government. They can go and try to solve, to some level, all the technical problems of the new system. But they can’t fault the current system for things which are a parts of the system’s design, while claiming that they really do want the current system and not the replacement system that doesn’t have those “faults”.

Or, in this case, you think Peretz is an idiot? Fine. You think that, only[5] because he has no military experience, it was a huge mistake to appoint him defence minister? Not fine, and you may be a bigger idiot than he is.

  1. liars, the lot of them, of course, but that’s the difference between practice and theory, right?[back]
  2. As the computer saying goes: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”[back]
  3. Hopefully, anyway. And filtered by the minister’s worldview[back]
  4. Though even there it’s a mess, and in many areas you have professionals who disagree, and follow different schools. Which one do you want to make the decisions, unchecked?[back]
  5. other reasons can be fine, as long as this one isn’t on the list[back]

The chickens must be terrified

August 25th, 2007

Who wouldn’t be terrified, discovering they just made it to the list of potential terrorist’s targets? And chickens are, well, chickens. It’s a well known fact.

On the other hand, the only chickens who seem to be attractive to terrorists, so far, are those living in the US. Or, in any case, the US government’s very own DHS are the only one who believes their chickens to be prime targets.

Yep, seems that the US DHS thinks that chicken houses are terrorist targets.


Because many of them are warmed by propane gas. And propane gas is inflamable. No, it is, really. You blow a bomb near a container of propane, and it will explode and burn.

Burning every chicken in the very close area. Possibly also the house of the farmer raising the chicken, if it’s close enough to the tank.

The rule affects nearly every poultry grower across the Delmarva peninsula, and as many as 20,000 sites across the country, because propane gas is the most popular chicken house heating method.

“The three 1,000-gallon propane tanks at a local grain elevator, or nursing home, or school or campground are not terrorist targets,” said NPGA Senior Vice President Philip Squair in a May 1 news statement. “What DHS is asking is for ordinary homeowners, businesses and farmers to declare themselves terrorist targets because they choose to use propane to heat their houses and businesses.”

Let’s do some guesswork, shall we?

Expected death toll if terrorists blow up the propane gas tank at a chicken house? Probably 0-6 people[1], and some fried chickens.

Expected death toll if the terrorists would take the same amount of explosive and put it near a small house in any small town? 0-6, without fried chicken.

Expected death toll if the terrorists would take the same amount of explosives and put it near the security gate of a mall, where people congregate to pass inside? 4-30? More?

Yes, I can see the terrorists going after the rural chicken houses. Any minute now. Any minute now.

  1. depending on how many kids the farmers have, if they’re home, where the gas tank is located, and how competent the terrorists are. How competents are terrorists who go after chickens, I wonder?[back]

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.

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.

Vacation over

June 20th, 2006

Ugh, the school year ends tomorrow.

Bored schoolkids are going to start running around in the streets during the day, crowding street corners and making noise into late hours at night, and making much more of a nuisance of themselves than usual.

Not to mention crowding cinemas in the later show hours, making noise and chatting all the time while the movie is playing. This happens almost every time a bunch of younger kids are in a cinema, but when they’re not on vacation they tend to avoid the later hours since there’s school the next day.

Similar problem with restaurants, shopping areas, and anywhere else bored kids may pester their parents into taking them.

Though I guess the parents suffer the most, so I’ve nothing to complain about.

OK, rant over. May this be the worst that will happen over the next couple of months.

Power outages

June 5th, 2006

During the last couple of days the electrical company here had caused numerous planned power outages.

Planned being the wrong term, maybe. The outages are intentional in that someone threw off the switch according to instructions, and planned in a similar manner since someone had to decide which switch to throw

But there were no notices in advance regarding the areas that will have the power supply broken, or the specific length in each case. According to the report the electric company didn’t bother deciding in advance themselves, just sent instructions down to regional branches throughout the day.

The most exact notice was, as heard on the radio today, a general and vague notice that the electrical company recommends that people will avoid using elevators until about 18:00. This after several incidents yesterday where people were trapped in an elevator for close to an hour.

Not that the warning helped much, a few people managed to get stuck in an elevator today as well, since the stairs are not practical for everyone.

The lack of information was very annoying. When the power is cut down it’s always annoying, naturally. But when there’s some accident or malfunction, it’s one thing. You know someone is working to fix it. And you know there wasn’t any way to provide a warning in advance. A planned/intentional outage is another thing. They disconnect parts of the grid on purpose because they can’t provide the demand. They know. So they can announce it in advance. The fact that they didn’t announce in advance, that’s just galling.

Most of the outages lasted a little less than an hour before power was restored, and cut down in another area. This is probably because the allowed limit for unannounced planned power outages is an hour, and they probably don’t want to cross it or they’ll have a lot more to explain if there will be an inquiry.

On the other hand, as I said, while the first outage on the morning may really be hard to announce in advance (assuming it’s motivated by a sudden discovery that power usage is about to outgrow the available production), this can’t possibly be the case for all the later outages when they already claim they will have them throughout the whole day. They can make a plan, and publish it. They should.

A main point, causing a lot of argument, is that at this point it’s not really clear if there really is a problem to supply the demand for electricity, or if it’s merely the power company flexing muscles. Possibly both.

The electrical company is involved in arguments with the government which are currently keeping three power stations down. The first case, and the one where it’s obvious the electric company is wrong, is an environmental issue. The electric company received more than enough time to upgrade a station to work on natural gas, and has been dawdling very aggressively. As a result the government ordered them to shut down the station until the upgrade is complete.

For two others the reports I read are unclear, but it’s either some disagreement about the administrative organization of the stations, or that they’re physically not ready to work yet. Depends on whether the people quoted are from the electric company or from the government. I’m not familiar with the issue myself beyond that, so no opinion here.

With three stations down, and power consumption raising each year, it’s possible that the company really can’t supply all the demand on very hot days, and has to shut down some clients. It’s possible.

On the other hand it’s also perfect timing for this to be a move to put pressure on the government to allow them to operate the stations their way. The station with the environmental issues has been shut down very recently, and it’s not a very major one. We had some really hot days not so many weeks ago, and they went over very smoothly and without a hitch.

The really messy part of everything, though, is all the highly biased media reports, for both sides, and the responses by some of the people.

Some reports go on and on about how the government is preventing the electric company from operating perfectly fine stations that can supply the power, never mind all the pesky issues like pollution and they way things run.

Other reports try to cast the company as a villain, blame on it anything that happened as a result of the power outage (and some things that just happened to occur at the same time), and call for investigations and lawsuits.

Many people feel very happy to charge head-on into blaming the electric company for everything. Sometimes they get a bit out of hand.

One article I read mentioned how a very old man with a pacemaker was caught in an elevator, and was rescued by the fire department after a few minutes. Which is fine as far as reporting goes, but then they bothered to mention again that luckily he didn’t need medical attention while he was stuck in an elevator.

Please, the guy was trapped for like five minutes. If he’s in a big risk of having a heart attack every five minutes, and to require immediate medical attention for that, then he should stay put in a hospital, or with an attached nurse. He should not go home and climb into an elevator. Nothing happened, and even if something did happen blaming it on the electric company would have been far-fetched.

Another story that received big headlines was about a woman, with a baby, who got trapped for 45 minutes in an elevator. So OK, that’s not fun. But again, nothing happened. They just waited in an elevator, and it was a little hot. No need to turn this into the major tragedy the paper and readers seem to.

Worse, traffic lights went out as well. They’re electrical, of course, so it’s no big surprise. And, frankly, traffic lights do go out occasionally anyway due to unplanned power breaks, or other malfunctions. But this time, the few accidents that occurred are blamed on the electric company. People want them to be sued for being responsible for the deaths.

This despite the fact that many intersections don’t have traffic lights anyway, and people usually know how to deal with this. Our traffic regulations cover driving without traffic lights. Heck, one of the drivers on the big accident ignored a stop sign. Sounds like the kind of driver who may ignore a red traffic light as well.

Sure, the traffic light was off, but that wasn’t the cause of the accident. That driver was. But people don’t seem to care, since yelling at the electric company is more fun.

One article I saw covering this went even further. They added to the same article a report about a kid who managed to slip down some ditch someplace and get killed. No relation to the electric company was mentioned at all, it just happened close to the area where one of the car accidents occurred. So, for the reporter, the physical proximity seemed like good enough a reason to mention this kid in the same article, thereby giving the distinct impression that this death can be blamed on the electric company too.

It’s a bad situation. And knowing we have those power outages makes me feel like I’m in some third-world country instead of the first-world country we usually pretend to be. If it will turn out that there wasn’t a good technical reason for the outages, and they were indeed mainly motivated by the desire to play power games (if you’d pardon the pun), I’ll also wholeheartedly support some major house-cleaning and head-chopping in the electric company.

But from here to blaming everything wrong in the world on them, well, the distance is very large…


April 4th, 2006

The elections for the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) took place last week.

Basically the Knesset has 120 seats. People vote for parties, and the seats are divided according to the relative amount of votes each party received (as long as a party passed a certain minimum).

The Prime Minister is then selected by the president as the party leader with the best chance of managing to arrange a coalition of parties big enough to form a government (i.e. a majority). And the parties who enter the coalition then divide the ministers’ positions in the government between them.

Well, roughly.

The system does encourage quite a few small parties, since minor groups have a chance of entering the Knesset, and even a decent chance of entering the government. Sometimes it even gives them too much power, since if the largest party can’t get enough support to form a government, another party leader may get the chance to be PM and from the government instead. This gives the small parties quite a lot of leverage.

And can sometimes have amusing results. In this election, for example, the biggest surprise was the pensioner’s party. They did have a chance to enter the Knesset, since there are a lot of old pensioners out there who understandably think about their own needs more than about some grand political schemes. But nobody expected them to do more than barely pass, if at all. And apparently lots of people who didn’t like anyone else decided to vote for them as a default, since it appeared harmless enough. Resulting in them getting 7 seats. And almost certainly entering the government.

One running gag about it is the surprise that the people at the 6th and 7th positions didn’t have a heart attack when they heard they’re in. Obviously none of them really expected to. Another cheap shot, but amusing, about them being old was a skit about a prominent politician saying he moved to their party to the 20th position. When asked why does he like it, given that they only got 7 seats, he replied that it’s only a matter of a few months until he’s in.

Another interesting results was the Avoda party, who received 19-20 seats (they’re still finishing with the final tally, and squabbling over everything). This makes them the second largest party, after Kadima with 29-30 seats.

The feelings are that they would have gotten a lot more votes if it weren’t for their party leader, Amir Peretz, whose views, at least some of them, are not particularly popular even among the party’s loyal voters. I myself know a few die-hard Avoda voters who didn’t vote for them this year because of him. And given the difference in votes between them and Kadima, having someone else might have been enough to make them the largest party, and having the first shot at building the government.

The Likud party, which together with the Avoda has been one of the two largest parties for a long long time, has suffered a lot, dropping to 12 seats. Finger pointing of course commenced immediately, with most of the fire directed towards the party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Partially justified, since a lot of people don’t like him personally either.

Though mostly what hurt them was Kadima, which was basically started by Ariel Sharon, the Likud party leader until not so long ago, who retired, taking a lot of the people, and the seats, with him.

Sharon also appeared prominently in Kadima’s campaign TV ads. Which is amusing given that he’s lying unconscious in a hospital, will take no active part in the party, and doesn’t have much to do with its current form except for vague statements they make about them being committed to continuing his legacy, whatever that may be.

All in all, lots of political fun. As always.

And a serious dearth of parties, and politicians, worth voting for. That’s usually the case, in that I always feel like instead of voting for the best party I have to settle on voting for the least of all evils. This year, however, deciding who is the least bad, well, wasn’t easy at all. I nearly decided to give up and skip the vote.

The problem being that, unlike few-parties methods like the American, we do have a plethora of small bizarre parties. This means that a missing vote is, relatively, a vote for the small parties. And I like most of them a lot less than my few least-bad candidates.

Oh, well. This election is over. Next one in four more years. Unless, as happened a lot lately, something will happen to force an earlier election.

Massive phone blunder for the British Foreign Office in Iraq

March 6th, 2006

In my own army unit they had strict limitations on phone usage. Well, not all that strict, we needed to talk on the phone, and we could. But there was a limit. And if a department strayed from the limit, they noticed. Quickly. And the department was reprimanded. In some cases repeat offenders simply had their phones cut off, or limited to only certain outgoing numbers, for a time.

The British Foreign Office, in comparison, is much more lax on phone usage. It can take them more than a year to notice very excessive charges. To destinations which were not related to operational needs. On phones that were stolen (but they didn’t notice this too, so that may be a good excuse). In Iraq.

It certainly was not part of Britain’s plans to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq. But the Foreign Office has been apparently paying for an adult sex chatline in a Baghdad street for 17 months without knowing it.

FO officials had already admitted that the lost phones had cost them £594,000 in unauthorised phone bills but it is now bracing itself for an extremely critical report from the Commons public accounts committee on how it came to pay phone bills, which at one stage hit £212,000 in one month, without asking questions.

Sir Michael said initial inquiries had revealed a series of blunders. The phones were already activated when they were sent to Baghdad and they were not properly logged in – so no one realised at first that they had been stolen. None of the bills were initially challenged until people realised the phones had gone missing.

This is such a long string of errors and blunders, one after the other, that it would have been really sad if it wasn’t so funny. Or maybe the other way around.

When shipping something abroad, they should track it. Always. If it was sent, and nobody received it, someone should have noticed. Private companies track inventory. Military units track inventory. Why can’t the British FO track inventory? Yes, there are items which aren’t tracked individually, but come on, a mobile phone isn’t exactly a paper-clip.

The fact that they didn’t monitor the billing for those phones is also amazing. The 17 months the article mentions is over a fiscal year. The charges should have been noticed after a month, I think, but not to notice such a bill after a whole year is almost beyond belief. I can’t think of any organization with such a free calling policy.

And these aren’t phones in an office at their HQ. These are phones sent to a foreign country, with all the confusion and potential problems that this entails. How can anyone expect that everything will be alright, and that no monitoring at all will be needed?

Not to mention, they also obviously didn’t screen the phones for permitted and forbidden destination. In an office, in the UK that would have been understandable. Too many places someone may need to call. But in the field, in Baghdad? These phones should have had a pretty limited list of allowed destinations, with a procedure set in order to allow others. And tight monitoring to make sure they’re not used otherwise. I believe those phone sex lines were not officially approved by anyone.

At least that’s one sex scandal that will be duly paid for by the guilty authorities, and in hard currency too.

Basing life and death decisions on automatic translation is a bad idea

November 26th, 2005

Automatic translation tools are terrible. There’s nothing wrong at all with looking up a word at an electronic dictionary, but letting one translate a sentences always ranges between pathetic and hilarious.

Even the best of translation tools does a terrible job of discerning context. And when each word can have several different translations, and often holds several different meanings, context is everything. You get that wrong, and some of the words wrong, and the translated result is pure gibberish.

Even worse, if the translation program tries to decipher some context and fails, as will often happen, the end result may not appear to be total gibberish at first glance. But we’re still far away from tools at even this level.

And all that is even when you translate between languages which are similar, and have a relatively recent common ancestor.

You can even check for yourself, just for fun. Go to one of the available translation tools on-line, enter a paragraph of text from someplace, and try to translate it first into a different language, and then back. See what a sordid mess you’ll get.

So, to change the subject completely (OK, not really), what new toys are the Americans up to in order to assist their soldiers in Iraq?

The risky business of battle-zone translation could get a technological boost, however, as researchers prepare to test a system that instantly translates spoken conversations to and from English and Iraqi Arabic.

Funded by Darpa, the system would allow troops to communicate in Arabic through a laptop computer equipped with voice recognition and translation software. Troops could speak in English and have their words instantly translated into Iraqi Arabic, “spoken” by a computerized man’s voice. The program also translates Arabic into English.

Automatic translation between Arabic and English. Two languages which are not even close to being remotely similar. At least those people haven’t lost their sense of humour. Though they may just do that after some bad incidents of horrible mistranslation that will cost human lives.

And they’re thinking of translating voice, even, not text. Voice recognition these days is still pretty bad. The best voice recognition programs these days don’t really work under non-ideal conditions, or without a lot of time dedicated to studying each individual voice they’ll be expected to deal with.

So all they have to do here is take a badly working voice recognition, drive the output from that one through a badly working translation engine, and then synthesize the output of that one to voice. Sure. No problems at all, none whatsoever. It’s going to go perfectly smooth. Nothing at all in there that they can’t get working within the year…

The only thing that seems plausible given the time frame is the voice synthesis at the end. And, well, even voice synthesis of text isn’t too hot yet these days. But really, that’s the least of their concerns.

Chinese can’t play for long, at least not on-line

November 26th, 2005

Recently there have been a few stories about people suffering damage due to excessive on-line gaming. Some idiots staying in their rooms for days playing non-stop, not taking care of themselves.

These stories get headlines, because as we all know the news media is always looking for sensations, and this is the kind of news that sells. Sad, but true.

It is, however, an incredibly small and irrelevant problem. The amount of people actually getting hurt, or dying, due to excessive gaming is very small. It just seems bigger because we’re used to just a fraction of events being on the news, while in this case every single instance gets the headlines. Plenty of other addictions are far worse, and far more damaging. Heck, plenty of other addictions actually exist in more than a score of rare and isolated cases.

So what most people do is shrug in wonderment of the idiots involved, and go on with their lives ignoring this phenomenon. Because it’s obvious it’s not really a phenomenon.

The Chinese , however, apparently think otherwise, and see this as a real problem, requiring real treatment:

Online computer gamers in China will be penalized for playing their favorite game for more than three hours at a time, as part of a plan to prevent young people from becoming addicted to fighting dragons and warlords in cyberspace.

Players that spend more than three hours online at a time will lose experience points and weapons in the cyber world.

Once a player has played for more than five consecutive hours, the system cuts the ability level of that player’s character to the lowest level allowed by the game, often zero.

Players must take a two hour break before logging into the game again to avoid being penalized.

Totally and completely crazy. In order to solve a non-problem, they’re interfering with the gameplay of nearly every single playing of on-line games in the entire country. Personally I don’t play these kinds of games, but I do occasionally play some computer games, and can easily see how annoying and distracting such limitations are.

On the other hand, the Chinese authorities are limiting Internet access in various forms for quite a long time, so I guess the idea came naturally to them.

The few quotes in the article from players seem to indicate they think it’s stupid as well, and some plan to try and trick the system. Which would be a pretty natural reaction, though I do doubt if it’s as safe to do it in China as it would be here.

Humane economics

November 15th, 2005

A new candidate, Amir Peretz, was chosen as the leader of the Avoda (Labour) party, one of the two traditionally largest political parties in Israel. Essentially that means that he has a decent chance (As always, depending on who else is running, and a myriad of other details) of becoming the Israeli prime minister following the next elections.

In the past, and where he gained most of his political attitude, and support, he was a union leader, and even led a party focusing on union rights (Yes, I’m oversimplifying a lot, but that’s the gist of it for this post’s purpose). And so, unsurprisingly, he keeps on with making loud political promises of employee rights that he will take care of if he will get elected.

Including a very explicit statement, which he stated a few times in the last few days, about the minimum wage. Specifically, he promises that if he will be elected as prime minister then he will increase the minimum wage to 4700 ILS. This is about 990 USD.

Never mind the exact amounts. The change is the important part. The current minimum wage is roughly 3500 ILS (or 740 USD). So we’re talking about a raise of approximately 34.2%. This is, if it’s not obvious to everyone, a lot.

But Mr. Peretz does not bother to specify how will the money be obtained. It’s a very simple thing, according to him. Everyone who receives minimum wage now, will just have their salary drastically increased. So the employees will have more money, and everyone will be better off.

Amazing why nobody thought about it before. So simple. Heck, maybe the wages should be even doubled, that way everyone will be even more better off and could live really well.

Oh, wait, there’s a slight snag. It has something to do with economic reality, the way the job market actually works…

Where the heck does he think the money is going to come from? Companies, the same entities who employ these minimum wage workers, pay them the salary in order for them to produce something. Something which the company will then be able to sell, in order to obtain income. And it needs that income, because that’s where the salary money comes from. It’s a fairly basic economic reality, the salary heavily depends on the production of the employee. The company cannot pay an employee more than that employee contributes to the company, since at this stage the employee is worse than unnecessary.

Most people who are worth to the company (In the manner of their contribution to the company’s income) more than the minimum wage, would have received a higher salary. Because otherwise they could have gone to a different company, who would happily offer them such a higher salary. It would be worth it to the other company, as they would still be making a profit from the deal. And it would naturally would be worth it to the employees, who normally have no qualms about getting more pay.

Generally speaking, the reason for people getting just the minimum wage is not that the companies enjoy exploiting them, and are trying to get rich on their account. Sure, there may be some of it, but it’s far from being the all prevailing reason. For most places, if they have to pay so much more to their employees, it becomes unprofitable to keep the employees. Many companies would be losing money. Not just cutting the profits, but moving from profits to losses, in any divisions that hire those minimum-wage employees.

The result of which will be mass firings, and an increase of unemployment rates. So instead of getting minimum wage those people could stay at home without any income, looking for a new job that nobody would offer them at the minimum salary they could legally accept getting unemployment benefits. This would hardly benefit those people that the increase is supposed to help (If unemployment was so much better for them than the minimum wage, they would have stopped working right now. Well, many of them do, but that’s a different story and I won’t get into it). And it would greatly hurt a lot of companies, both big and small, and as a direct result will also hurt the economy of the country.

Unless the government is going to subsidize the salary increase. In which case firing those people will not necessarily be the obvious solution, since the cost of hiring them would not rise. But that is an entirely different problem, namely where will the government take the money from? Since nothing can be cut back so drastically (there are a lot of people there getting minimum wage, on aggregate the amounts of money to finance this would be staggering), we’re talking tax increases. Large ones.

Which, you guessed it, hurt companies and force them to cut down on the workforce in order to cut costs. But will also hurt everyone else (Such as, if you’ll excuse the political incorrectness, employees who are getting more than the minimum wage, because they have valuable skills, or invested in studies). Many active businesses may stop being lucrative, causing them to close down, hurting both all their employees, and whoever was using their products.

All these options would result in an increase of the unemployment rate, and in a reduction of the GDP. This massive raise of the minimum salary would greatly hurt the economy. All of which will, as a minor side-effect, make it even harder to maintain the artificially high minimum wage.

But no, a claim on the newspaper this morning calms us. Peretz is not blind to the economic realities. He believes in economics, but he believes in Humane economics. Whatever that means. Ah, right, it means economics that pay attention to the well being of the people, and do not let themselves be confused with facts. If it is good for the employees, it doesn’t matter that it’s not sustainable for long enough for the people to enjoy them before being smashed over the head with the consequences…

Gasoline prices

August 29th, 2005

Gas prices have increased lately, pretty much all over the world. And everyone is complaining, although to be honest everyone always complain when prices of anything rises, so that’s not indicative of anything. The prices in the US have jumped rapidly lately, getting plenty of press over there for the recent prices of $3 per gallon, or so.

Which is amusing, since the US gasoline prices are still among the lowest on the world, at the consumer level. But that’s Americans for you. Well, that’s everyone actually, since being annoyed when things go worse for you is natural, even if you’re still better than everyone else. Not that everyone agrees they’re better, since those prices aren’t there in a vacuum, but it sure feel that way to a person going to fill the car with gasoline.

So, given the rates of increase in those tables, I wondered how do the prices in Israel compare. And went to check it out.

Here in Israel gas prices have increased in about 18.8% since the beginning of the year. Currently at the gas station the price for 95 octane unleaded gas was according to the data by the Ministry of National Infrastructures (in ILS per liter):

01/02/2005    4.67
02/01/2005    4.98
03/01/2005    4.96
04/01/2005    5.24
05/01/2005    5.37
06/01/2005    5.11
07/01/2005    5.52
08/01/2005    5.55

These values pretty much fit my recollection of prices I paid, so no need to assume the government is lying. Not in this case anyway.

95 unleaded gasoline is what the Americans would refer to as Premium unleaded gas. That’s actually the most common kind here, and you don’t really see anything with lower octane level at the gas stations. The range that you can find in the stations basically only include 95, 96, 98 octane, and diesel.

The price, converted to USD per gallon (with one gallon being 3.7854 liters and an exchange rate (Banking rate) of 0.2216 from ILS to USD on august
1st, and 0.2321 on January second (historical rates from ), was roughly $4.655 per gallon in August, and roughly $4.1 per gallon in January.

The difference in USD then comes to about 13.5%, less than the 18.8% difference in ILS which we felt here, but still a nice climb I think. Not nearly the rate of the climb in the US for the same period, though, which according to information on the tables I showed above stands closer to 50% increase.

These prices here do not include a fixed service commission (the difference between the price you pay when you self-service at the gas station, and the price you pay when you have a station’s employee filling the tank for you). I’m ignoring it for the rest of the post as well. It’s about 0.11 ILS per liter (officially, according to the site, but in most stations the listed difference is 0.15 ILS per liter) .

Our Ministry of National Infrastructure’s website also provides explanations as to how the gas prices are determined. Both the price at the refineries, and how the final price at the station is derived from it (Pages are in Hebrew).

To summarize and roughly translate, the price has four components:

  1. A tax, of 2.20 ILS per liter. In the listed above August exchange rate, that would be about $1.845 per gallon. This is currently estimated as 35.4% of the gasoline price.

    Notice that this place just the tax at nearly the entire price of gasoline in the US at 2004.

  2. VAT. 17% these days. In the recent years it ranged between 17%-18%, so that’s practically static. This is estimated as 14.5% of gas price at the station.

  3. Gasoline publicity/advertisement expenses. This is apparently determined by an outside consultant to the ministry of treasury and infrastructure, who determines the “desired profitability for for the national economy in the gasoline publicity segment”. And it is updated every half year based on the movement in the publicity margins of “four countries in Europe” up to some ceiling. This is estimated as 10.4% of the gasoline price.

    Personally I’m not sure why they need to publicize gasoline, but nobody asked me. A part of this probably also goes to compensate gas stations for installing the self-service pumps, the website is not entirely clear on that.

  4. Refinery prices. The purpose is to get a price which is similar to the European one. The calculation is done on a monthly basis. Raw data for prices is taken from the Platts system.

    The basis is the average price on the first five of the last seven business days of the previous month in Europe. They want five business days, and it takes two to do the calculation. And no, I’m not sure why it takes two days to calculate the price, but that’s what the site says. The price used is the price for a one (metric?) Ton of gasoline, in USD.

    The exchange rate is the one on the first of the two calculation days, based not on the banking rate but the “high checks rate” (I’m again not sure exactly what’s the markup on this one, but would make a wild guess at the 4-5% range) of one of the local banks (Bank Leumi, if anyone cares). The stated reason for the use of this rate is “the need to take into account the costs of purchasing currency to finance the purchase of crude oil and derivatives”.

    The price is then multiplied by a density factor to convert it from ILS per ton to ILS per liter, about 0.75, and by other variables needed to compensate for volume changes due to temperature differences.

    And this base refinery price, plus insurance, leakage, inventory, etc, is estimated to be just 35.4% of the total consumer cost at the gas station.

And that’s how the gas prices are determined here. Now you know. I Can’t say it’s all that fascinating, but that’s the way it is.

On the one hand I feel annoyed at paying all those extra taxes, making gasoline so much more expensive here than on the US. But on the other hand, the rates here are still cheaper than in other places in the world. So I guess I shouldn’t complain too much. Plus, the fixed taxes as a part of the price do mean that the price is less sensitive to changes in crude oil prices, so they are kept more stable. Not to mention one of the biggest advantages of higher gasoline prices, keeping less people on the already over-crowded streets.

This post was precipitated by both a recent thread on the Interesting People list, and a conversation I had with a friend about gasoline prices.