Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Make a new plan, Stan, and get yourself free

Spanish banks are laying off workers, and getting EU bailouts. The Anglo Irish Bank is being liquidated. Some British banks have been part-nationalized to stave off collapse, and Italy and Greece are struggling to keep their economies afloat.
But Israel – beleaguered, embattled and with few natural resources – has managed to keep its economy not only buoyant but racing away at an enviable speed during these troubled times.
How on earth did we manage it?

Well, there are many that point the praise at the governor of our central bank, the inimitable Professor Stanley Fischer. Yes, Stan The Man, captain of the good ship Bankofisrael, author of the acclaimed Essays on Contingent Assets and Felafel, Go Easy on the Schug, and founder of the Eazy Muney, no-commission, currency exchange kiosk on the corner of Ben Yehuda and David Klein streets, has been widely lauded as the one individual who kept his head when all about him were losing theirs, and steered the Israeli economy through the storm. Not only that, but his policies may very well have beneficial effects on our economy for years to come.

Some of you may have heard of the subprime crisis: the crisis that erupted after mortgages were sold at stunningly low prices to the poor and huddled masses of America. These loans were then bundled together into unrecognizable pretty packages with colourful ribbons and funky acronyms, and sold on and on again to everyone in the financial markets. Trouble came when interest rates rose, and the pitiful householders failed to meet payments and defaulted on their mortgages. The collapse of this market knocked out many major players - banks and investment houses - throughout the financial world. Except for Israel’s wonderful banks, which remained robust. Is this because our banks are all-seeing, all-knowing, all-wonderful? Allevai. No, rather because they’re so slow and hadn’t actually got round to unwrapping the pretty packages (and anyway all the acronyms were in English) so by the time our illustrious banks considered buying the subprime loans, it was too late. (Thank goodness).

Anyway, Stan The Man has, among his many policies, introduced such restrictions on the mortgage market in Israel that would make it impossible for any subprime loan sector to even raise its ugly head here. You need a far larger deposit on a home in Israel before you can approach a bank to give you a mortgage, for example. As if buying a home in Israel wasn’t hard enough for newcomers to the property ladder. Housing in Israel is disproportionately expensive (in terms of how many months’ salary one has to earn to buy an average property) not because of mortgage restrictions, but because the state, through the Israel Lands Administration, still owns most land in Israel and is very reluctant to let any of it go.

By the way, if you follow my blog, I wrote a while ago about the popular politician and former cabinet minister, Moshe Kahlon, and suggested that this is a man to watch. And lo and behold, no sooner had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finished reading my blog and chosen what his wife should wear for that day, than he went and announced that he was appointing Kahlon head of the Israel Lands Administration in order to shake up the whole system. However, the appointment is still pending: As is usual in Israel, Kahlon first has to fill out the forms in triplicate and then bring his end-of-year First Grade certificate, signed by both his parents, and stamped by an authorized notary that knew his First Grade teacher personally for no less than 12 years. So, it’s not yet a done deal.

Well one of us will have to go. Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Stan, in the meantime, announced he’s had enough, that after seven years at the Bank of Israel he’s now saved up enough to buy his own parking space in central Tel Aviv, and has decided to retire. Rumours are rife as to his next move. Some say he’s applied to be the next pope, a position that was opened up recently, and indeed there are reports that white smoke signals have been wafting from his office on the 7th floor. Some say he’ll be off to the sun-soaked state of Florida to write his memoirs “Brother, Can You Spare a Shekel?” to be ghost written by five dead former prime ministers of Israel. Others believe that now that Dame Edna Everage has retired, Stan will be launching his own chat show on cable TV.

Back at the ranch, names are being mooted to replace him. In his professional manner, he did say that his deputy Karnit Flug was certainly capable: “I would not have proposed appointing a Deputy Governor whom I did not believe would be able to function as Governor when necessary.” Flug in the past headed the Bank’s Research Department, and was a member of the government-appointed committee that looked into waste and inefficiency in the army. You are welcome to read the findings of that committee, but – BEWARE! SPOILER AHEAD – basically, they concluded that “the army is full of waste. So let’s help them become more efficient, and give them an extra NIS10 billion a year”. A conclusion worthy of Chelm, without a doubt.

Let’s hope that a suitable candidate pops up before Stan jogs off into the sunset in June. For all our sakes.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

We are all winners in a democracy, except for some of you

Helen Suzman died four years ago this month. She was an indomitable anti-apartheid activist and politician in South Africa, during its darkest times. She came to represent what the African National Congress party called “a thorn in the flesh of apartheid” or, as the South African Prime Minister P.W.Botha preferred, “a vicious little cat.”
She stood against the appalling segregationist laws at a time when the white electorate continued to vote for the party of racism. Helen Suzman established her own liberal party, and remained that lonely small voice in the vile field of South African politics for many years. She continued to run for politics, and lead a party, when she had no hope of “winning”, no ounce of a chance of forming a government.
The epithet she deserved, truly, was tenacious.
Tenacity (from the Greek λληνες meaning “OMG I think I’m stuck”): the art of hanging on, of pursuing a cause, even if all around you are losing theirs. 

Which brings us neatly on to what happened here in Israel last Tuesday, a glorious summers day, when thousands of citizens fanned their barbecues, and headed to the ballot boxes, via the beaches and the parks.
Israel was voting for the 19th Knesset, and we had a plethora of political parties to choose from. So let’s have a quick indulge in a little psephology. And why not? We deserve it.

For those who can’t quite remember exactly what the word means, psephology is the study and analysis of elections. It comes from the Greek ψῆφος for pebble, as the Greeks used to cast their votes with pebbles.
First you need to understand Israel’s simplistic, and flawed, electoral system. The system considers the country as one single consistency, and votes are cast for party lists; each party submitting an ordered list of candidates prior to the vote. When all the votes have been counted up, the 120 seats in Knesset are divided based on a simple proportional division. If the Pyjama Party, for example, gets 10% of the vote, they’ll get 10% of the seats (that is 12).

The Israeli ballot box this week was brought to you by the letter B. Photo: Haaretz

Of course with any system, involving maths, figures, equations and remainders, it doesn’t divide exactly.
Habayit Hayehudi, led by beamish Naftali Bennet, won 12 seats with 345,935 votes, while just 14,135 votes behind came Shas, led by three men in black suits and beards, which won 11 seats.
While further down the results table, we find Hatnua, the vehicle for Tzipi Livni, winning 6 seats with 189,168 votes, while 16,786 votes behind came Meretz, the liberal party, which funnily enough also got 6 seats.
In other words, Bennet’s extra 14,000 votes won him an extra seat in parliament, but Tzipi Livni’s extra 16,000 votes didn’t.

And what about voting for a party that didn’t manage to pass the arbitrary 2% threshold? We’re talking about parties that add colour and spice to politics: Ale Yarok (the Green Leaf party) which believes it would all be so much better if we could just chill out, got no seats, despite its 45,000 votes (more than 3 times that vote-gap between Bennet and Shas!); Am Shalem, promoting less religious-secular divide by treating everyone equally, led by a man with a long beard; Otzma LeYisrael, one of whose campaign ads was disqualified for being racist, but who garnered over 60,000 votes; or Dor, formerly the Pensioners Party, which stunned one and all in 2006 when it won 7 seats in Knesset.
In total, 263,044 people cast votes for parties that failed to win a seat. That’s a lot of disenfranchised (from the Latin disenfranchisiatorum, meaning “Hey, why wasn’t I invited?”) citizens out there.

Sure, in other democracies, there are millions of voters whose choice of candidate doesn’t get in, but at least they still have their own, constituency-based, representative. Here in Israel, you have no one.

And then there’s the ephemeral nature of it all. Politicians jump ship, swap parties, set up new movements, all in the name of the game and the prospect of a finger in the public pie. Likud still seems to be running the show, granted (albeit its showing slumped at the ballot box, despite swallowing up the Israel Beytenu party) while other parties seem to come and go like the seasons. Kadima, a veteran party of, ooh, at least six years, was the largest party in the 2006 elections, winning 29 seats. Last week, it plummeted (plummet, from the Greek πίκουρος, meaning “Hallo! Can anybody hear me up there?”) to only 2. Ehud Barak’s Independent Party, established in 2011 for reasons I can’t go into here without spoiling your lunch, didn’t even bother contesting in 2013. While the second largest party (Yesh Atid) and the seventh (Hatnua) were established just now, when you popped out to put the kettle on.

Which explains why 53 of the 120 members of Knesset 2013 are brand new politicians. Now don’t worry about the old ones. They get very generous payments to help them adjust to the cruel world outside of politics. The minimum “adjustment” grant is NIS111,843, or one year’s average wage in Israel. In addition, they receive an annual payment for life to cover phone calls, newspapers, etc., all at the taxpayer’s expense.

Sorry, I’m wrong, our politicians are indeed tenacious: Tenacity, from the Hebrew מגיע לי meaning “I’m not giving up my perks, pull the other one.”

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Is it winter already?

I took a short hiatus, due to some local war. I'm sure you were worried for me, my blogfans, and indeed rockets were fired at Tel Aviv, but apparently they couldn't find anywhere to park.
And I thought of writing about the political shenanigans, again, in the run-up to the elections, but I blinked and one of the parties disappeared. I blinked again and one major party lurched rightwards, another blink and yet another party materialized as if by magic. I've given up blinking.

Indeed a week is a long time in politics. So said that great former prime minister of Britain, Harold Wilson. And how true. Why, it only takes a few minutes to stab a political foe in the back, or a crisis to unfurl, or a scandal to come out of hiding. A lot can happen in a week.
Creation, for example, only took six days, which, if you think about it, is quite a long time for a deity.
For us mere mortals, construction is a tricky business, and could take quite a while. A metropolitan light rail system for the Tel Aviv area, say, might take us 6 or 7 years, maybe even 10. Certainly no more than 15, and anyone who suggests that the Tel Aviv's been messing around with the plans for its desperately needed transport system for over 40 years should be ashamed of themselves. (Go to the back of the class, and think very carefully about what you've just implied.)

Back to creation. We read in that best-seller, the Bible (or the Tentateuch as we like to call it), that the One Above did the whole job in six days, including livestock, gnats, cirrus clouds and thrush. First He created light, because who on earth (and that's where He was, remember) can do a good job in the dark? (Please don't answer that one, it's not that type of blog). Then He went on, day by day, creating the waters and the waters (very easily confused) and then the trees and grasses, and by Day Four He'd created the sun. Which raises the question: What was the light that he created on Day One?

Now this isn't a theological blog either, so I won't attempt to answer that one.
But, as we all know, it took Him six days to complete the whole shebang, after which he rested, which is where we got the idea of cholent and shabbos shluf from.
Surely He could have done a faster job, if you think about it. But what was stopping him, was the fact that it got dark quite early at that time of year, and He hadn't had the wisdom of thinking up Daylight Saving Time, or Summertime, as George Gershwin likes to call it.
Who thought up the great idea, then? Well, some say it was a Brit named George Vernon Hudson, living in New Zealand. But do you honestly think the idea would come from New Zealand? I mean, what is there to do there other than count sheep?
Some say it was Benjamin Franklin, the US statesman and diplomat, though I'm sure he was far too busy flying kites for it to have been him. So I'm going for William Willett, a housebuilder from Surrey, who pushed the idea from 1909, though it never got off the ground until war broke out.
Yes, it was only during the First World War that countries, Britain among them, were searching for any means of saving money, and Daylight Savings Time was a saviour. So it started in Britain in 1916 when it lasted from May 21 to October 1. USA followed in 1918, though New Zealand didn't follow till 1927 (Being in the southern hemisphere does make it a little more confusing. Apparently, you have to turn the clocks forward whilst your back is turned, jump three times, and say 'my precious' in a gravelly voice).
Israel first had Daylight Saving Time in the 1940s, thanks to the Brits. Generally the "summer" that falls within the adjusted time period is shorter than everywhere else. And that is often blamed on the small religious parties in Knesset who make tenuous claims that summertime makes Yom Kippur far too dreary, or somehow makes kosher meat go rancid more quickly.
Photo: Patrick Seeger/dpa/Corbis

This year, summertime came to an abrupt halt on September 23, (in 2010, it ended on September 10th!!) when it was still hot and humid, and Mother Nature hadn't even packed away her summer sandals. The public ranted and raved, so to popular acclaim, the Knesset this month passed a bill that extended future Daylight Saving Time. Next year, it will last 191 days instead of the 177 days it did this year (though still far behind the 210 days in Europe or 238, noch, in the US).
What exactly made our politicians change their mind? Maybe, and here's a radical idea, maybe it is so close to our elections in January, that no party wanted to be seen dissing the widely popular move. So ever so quietly (only 27 MKs were around at the time) the Knesset passed the extended summertime.
But for the same reason, with an election looming, the government decided it couldn't go ahead with the budget for 2013. It'll just scrap the idea, and leave it all to the next government, that probably won't be formed until February. Meaning, they were too afraid that instead of the usual frenzy, with every party in the coalition threatening to resign unless it gets a few more billion for its constituents, there could actually have been responsible restraint from the politicians. So, putting their own interests first, we're heading into the new year with no state budget.
I know, the new year's not for another seven weeks, but as we all know, seven weeks is a very long time in politics.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Exclusive: Four out of five polls are wrong (including this one)

Thank goodness for polls. Without them we wouldn't know what to eat, what to wear, which shampoo really makes your hair naturally curly and bouncy, and, almost as importantly, who to vote for.
Whiskas ran a popular ad campaign back in the 1820s or thereabouts, you wouldn't remember anyway, in which they claimed "Eight out of ten cats said they preferred it". (It was later changed, after the Advertising Piffling Pedantic Party-pooper Association discovered that cats can't actually talk, to the far more accurate: "77% of people who own, or share accommodation with, cats, or other animals of a feline nature, when surveyed, on average, within a 2-standard deviation of the mean, expressed a preference, when pushed, if they had to, for cat food." Which, you must agree, just trips off the tongue.) It was a great ad campaign, and has been widely mimicked over the years – what better praise can one get?

Newspapers love market surveys, no matter how misleading and unhelpful they may be.
Last month, the Jerusalem Post had a lead story along the lines of "Our exclusive survey results: Imaginary party headed by all the centre-left politicos and ex-politicos (not currently in jail) could prove the winning ticket." In their poll, they discovered that a party with the unlikely combination of Tzipi Livni (popular ex-leader who disappointed everyone by coming first in the last elections), Ehud Olmert (ex-prime minister, who recently starred in a court serial drama until it was suddenly pulled), Shaul Mofaz (current party leader, though no one knows where he is) and Yair Lapid (future party leader and ex-bank pin-up) could indeed beat the Likud favourites. Which takes some imagination, as the four wouldn't even share an antipasti let alone a platform. Yet another article for the chattering classes that served no purpose.
In today's The Times of Israel, an electoral poll suggested that Moshe Kahlon, a retiring popular Likud Member of Knesset (hey, he could be called MK MK) could end up as the second largest party, should he choose to run. In other words, "Non-existent party headed by man who has just left politics could come second in the vote." Well there's a useful waste of newsprint.
What should we expect next? "Eight out of ten people said they would buy something shiny if it came in very small handy sizes" or "Tuesdays would be far more popular if they came after Wednesdays, says our exclusive poll."

Moshe Kahlon bidding to set up the Vention 2012 Party  (Photo: Daniel Bar-On, Haaretz)
Now why exactly is Moshe Kahlon so popular?
Well for a start he promoted legislation that limited the commissions that banks charge us. You know the sort of thing: a few shekels for entering the bank, some more for asking a question, several more for having the audacity to want to take your own money out of your account.
But mostly for the past three years, as Minister of Mobile Phones (aka Minister of Communications), Kahlon has wrought changes that have probably benefited more middle- and low-income earners than anything he pushed through as Minister of the Tired, Poor and Huddled Masses (aka Minister of Welfare). He freed the phone market, allowing in more operators, and more network combinations including Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), which if you're not quite sure what that means, wait after class and I'll explain it to you. But the main point is, he broke up the market, the products, the services. Instead of having to register with one company and buy your phone, your airtime, your number there, and stay there forever, trapped, at a high price, the market is now more accessible for all, at competitive prices. For example, the newest kids on the block (Golan Telecom and HOT Mobile) sell SIM cards, but not the handsets themselves. Prices are falling, the 'veteran' players are having to play a tougher game to keep their subscribers. New legislation has severely limited what fines must be paid if you choose to leave one of the telecoms companies (whether one of the cellphone companies or your cable or satellite TV company). And most significantly – without which all of these changes would be worthless – you can hop from one operator to another and take your phone number with you.
And in recognition of this, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel chose him as one of the handful of Knights of Quality Government last year, citing his work in "reforms intended to improve the status of the consumer in the telecoms market, particular in the cellphone sector, and including the lowering of connection fees and the introduction of new cellphone operators into the market."

Naturally in this topsy turvy world of Israeli movers and shakers, a popular, award-winning politician is the very type of individual who would choose to leave, and last month he announced he was forgoing politics for a quieter life. However, given the dearth and quality of the ones we're left with, and given that there are still five long weeks before lists have to be submitted for standing in the elections in January, anything could happen.
Anyway, he's a man to watch in my opinion. In fact eight out of ten of my opinions preferred him.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Israeli Elections: A Guide to the Befuddled

Voters in Israel will be heading for the ballot boxes in January 2013, and clearly someone needs to explain the confusing array of politicians and parties who are competing in the elections. This I am happy to do.
Warning: The article below expresses the sole opinion of the author and in no way should be taken as a recommendation, a hint, a slight suggestion, or even a dare, to vote for one particular party or individual or vice versa or even viva voce. Politics is a serious matter, and should not be taken lightly. (A well-known academic, who shall remain nameless, once accepted a political dare as a joke whilst drunk at a party in Jerusalem and ended up as finance minister for the past four years. What do we learn from this? Don't play with politics, drink sensibly, and be careful what parties you go to).

Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud Party). Front runner in the polls. Not to be confused with his much younger and immature twin brother, Bibi Netanyahu (prime minister from some time way back for about three very long years). Benjamin Netanyahu, learning from Bibi's mistakes, has been, in the words of a wily political commentator, "one of the finest prime ministers Israel has seen since 2009". His achievements have been both legendary and anecdotal, his anecdotes have achieved a great deal, and his legends have been stuff of anecdotes. Recognizing how stability is held dear by many in Israel, he has staunchly defended the status quo, and indeed, throughout his term of office, he has managed to keep the same hairdo, the same name, the same marriage, many of the same friends, the same coalition (except for the parties that left and others that joined), and the same currency (for which he has won praise, and not a little envy, from many of his European peers). In the past four years Israel has consistently kept her geographic position, the same Mediterranean climate, as well as her participatory-but-non-victorious role in the Eurovision Song Contest. Many commentators put Likud as the winner in the January elections, and judging by his smirk, Netanyahu concurs with this.

Shelley Yachimovich (Labor Bleedinghearty Party). Yachimovich, a former journalist and abrasive radio anchor, became leader of the beleaguered Labor Party in 2011, after then leader Ehud Barak left (unilaterally, in the dead of night, allegedly taking the list of members and keys to the herbal tea cupboard with him). Yachimovich, an active social rights campaigner, won the leadership contest in a close-fought battle against Amir Peretz, trade unionist and binocular salesman, with only four and a half votes between the two. Peretz and Yachimovich had previously been very chummy, at one time allegedly planning to open a hair-salon-cum-moustache-trimming business together in Sderot. Knesset shenanigans since then have made the Labor Party the largest outside of the governing coalition, and hence turned Yachimovich into the official Leader of the Opposition, which is apt as she opposes almost anything you care to suggest. 

Some have suggested that Israel move toward the Julius Caeser Transferable Vote System, where the election results are clear cut and decisive (but often messy)
Ehud Barak (Labour Party, Someotherthingy Party). Former Chief of Staff of Israel's defense forces, and prime minister. Once lived on the 35th floor of an exclusive luxury block of flats in downtown Tel Aviv, though following the wave of social protests, he has since moved down to the 21st floor so that he can have a closer look at the troubles that beset the proverbial 'man on the street'. With this type of bonhomie, and rapport with the common man, Barak has charmed so many people as he passes through politics from party to party, winning popularity before moving on, and winning hearts again and again. Now leader of the… wait a minute I had it written down somewhere… I can't remember, anyway, definitely the leader of a new Party, and likely to remain as leader well into January. The party itself will probably win a few votes, though would probably win more if I could only remember what it's called.

Ehud-is that brown envelope for me thanks just put it on the pile with the others-Olmert. (Kadima, Likud). Former prime minister and mayor of Jerusalem, one time small-town lawyer. He recently trounced the evil State Attorney's Office in court, being declared Absolutely Not Guilty of several nasty malicious allegations thrown at him, and for which he had to step down as Prime Minister in order to cook up a good story, sorry, I mean, in order to defend his innocence. Though he was found guilty on the minor charges of doodling on state-owned headed paper without permission and posing as an honest politician, there are many calls for Olmert to return to the political fray. Olmert has been widely acclaimed as a fine administrator (since his stint as PM all files in government are now stored alphabetically, and are also colour coded), and praised for his loose political leanings, and agile party maneuverability, which allowed him to push through plenty of achievements whilst in office. Finance is not his strong suit though: Olmert drove Jerusalem to bankruptcy whilst mayor, and was on his way to doing the same to the country, before he stepped down as PM early in 2009. Apparently Olmert is keen to get back to the Prime Minister's Office (though this may be because he believes there's a brown envelope left in one of the drawers marked Holiday Snaps by Rishon Tours Photo Services.)

There now, that should help.

Disclaimer: All of the above was correct at the time of publication, but may be subject to changes at any moment due to Middle East idiosyncrasies. Indeed, just as I finished typing the previous sentence, 85% of the above article became obsolete. Management apologises for any inconvenience.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

1948 and All That*, A Whimsical History

Sadly, there’s quite a deplorable ignorance about the history of Israel among the young population. (Who’s young? you may ask. Well that’s all relative. Anyone who can’t remember what a record player is is young.) Or at least, so complained a friend of mine who teaches Civics here in Israel. Of course one assumes he was bemoaning their ignorance before he taught them, not after.

So for your, and their benefit I thought I’d give a quick rundown of Zionism, and the History of the Modern State of Israel, abridged.
Of course there’s a great deal of argument over Israel, Palestine, the history of Zionism. And the facts are often very confusing (possibly because a lot of them are on the ground, apparently, where they can be trampled upon). So I’ve redrawn the history with heaps of poetic licence, based not so much on facts but more on suggestive anecdotes and the general gist.

So if you're sitting comfortably, I shall begin.

Herzl, when he first started his modeling career,
here seen  sporting the popular frock coat.
Once upon a time, back in an earlier century, there lived an emancipated European Jewish man with a long dark beard called Herzl, who was always leaning on balconies and dreaming. One day, whilst leaning on a particularly classic balcony in a town in Switzerland, it suddenly occured to him that if he really wanted something it needn’t be a dream. So he formed an organization called WIZO, and gathering together all the influential and funny sounding friends he could find, he set about establishing a home for the People of the Book. But first he needed a Book. So he wrote an almost-bestseller, called Alt Neuland, which was Prussian for the Austrian for the German for what we in English called Neverneverland, which was an allegory of displaced people and their quest for a place where they could put their hat. And so call it a home.

At the time, there was an old empire, left over from the empirical period, called the Ottoman Empire on account of all the furniture in it, and the pashas. A small part of that empire, just below a larger part, and to the right of the important part, was a land called Frankenstien (formally Uganda) where the Philistine people lived. Herzl, together with his WIZO friends, having raised an enormous sum of money at a charity ball, put a deposit on a sand dune in Palestine, and invited others (not themselves, obviously) to move in and start building condominiums. The Turks (for it was they, under the guise of the pashas and Ottomans) were incensed and in retaliation, decided to join the wrong side of World War One. When World War One (also known as The War That Was To End All Wars Until The Next One) ended, the French and the British, who were on the Right Side of the war, sliced up the Middle East with no more than a ruler, a compass, and a hand that felled a city. The French got all the bits that spoke French, or pretended to, while the British got whatever was left over, or whoever agreed to drive on the left, and that included Palestine, which became a Mandate (which is a bit like a blind date, but involves no multitasking).

So now the British ran the place. They spent most of their time painting all the letter boxes red, renaming all the roads King George Street, drinking tea, and attempting to stop the influx of Zionists (which is Hebrew for the English term ‘bloody Zionists’), who were mostly Europeans from Europe who were escaping Europe by boat as World War Two (the one after the first one) was just about to finish. One of the most famous boats at the time was the SS Exodus (named after one of the books of the bible, though no one is sure which) and which was captained by Paul Newman. At this point, some of the local Arabs (who were either Philistines themselves, or possibly Turks) also took offense, though the British assured them that whatever Florence of Arabia (an Irishman of the British Legion who rose to high rank despite wearing dresses) had promised them would be honoured, if they could just sign here and here. And initials here, thank you.

But riots broke out, and the British who tried to keep the peace by offering even more tea, were finally compelled to blame it on everybody else, and left in a huff. (Huffs were very large boats at the time). And in 1948ish or thereabouts, while the local Jewish population were busy singing and dancing in the streets (as there was no television in those days, and no heating either), a new state was declared: the State of Israel. A wise old man called Ben Gurion (formerly known as Lod) who had tufts of white hair here and here, was elected the first prime minister and his assistant was an elderly young statesman called Shimon Peres, who, no matter how often he lost elections, persevered at politics for a whole life time (some say even longer) until he left politics altogether and became President of the State.

To begin with, the young state was not only young and inexperienced, but it was also out of place, out of odds, and out of tea too. (The British had taken the last shipment when they left, together with the last carton of milk. In a bitter irony, Israelis decided that from then on they would drink tea, but not the English sort, and they wouldn’t add milk). Meanwhile, all the neighbouring states launched an attack, and fighting carried on till finally someone said stop, very possibly Ben Gurion, who would often hold cabinet meetings while standing on his head on the beach.

That was the rocky start of the State of Israel, and if I can remember any more of the factless history, I’ll tell you the rest another time.
So now we're all the wiser.
Have a wonderful day.

*With many thanks to W.C.Sellar and R.J. Yeatman.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Cause and effect: Karma and calmer

"My Aunt Dolly once put sugar in her tea, and over the next 40 years she lost all her teeth," quipped the great, late satirist and comic writer Peter Cook. Which is a wonderful lesson to us all: Cut down on sugar.
So you think today's blog is going to be all about calories?
Well I'm never that obvious, am I? So think again.
In his witty repartee, Cook had hit the nail on the head. It's all a question of Cause and Effect (oh, now I hear all the statisticians and econometrists among you jump up with excitement), which is a Karma philosophy. (Now I hear all you Buddhists jump up with excitement. Well maybe not jump. Roll over, possibly).
What it boils down to is: What causes what? If two things occur together, are they necessarily correlated? Maybe there's a third, unknown, factor which is behind it all.
Which came first indeed? The chicken or the egg, or the farmer?
In the 19th century, the great economist Ricardo faced a similar conundrum: Is the rent that farmers pay on their fields high because the price of corn is high? Or is the price of corn high because farmers are paying high rents?

Now why don't you sit back and let me tell you an old, old story.
Once upon a time, back in the 1880s, the French decided (like many before them) that it would be far quicker, easier, and therefore cheaper, if instead of sailing all round the bottom of Cape Horn to get from one part of the globe to another, one could cut right through the middle of the American continent. So they looked at the atlas, found the narrowest part of the continent, which was in… yes, well done, my blog fans… Panama, and decided to build the Panama canal. The French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, invested money, equipment, builders, engineers and designers into the massive venture.
The project failed.
Not just failed, but tragically failed. Over 22,000 workers died in the attempt. The venture was abandoned, and it took many years until the project was taken up again, this time by the Americans (trust them to turn up late, pump in the money, and take the credit), who succeeded, and the canal opened in 1914.
So, my quiz for the day: What was the missing link? Why did so many workers die in the first attempt at forging a canal through Panama?

The answer: Mosquitoes.
In the 1880s, no one knew that mosquitoes were the transmitters of malaria and yellow fever. No one fully understood the importance of sanitation and clean drinking water. And the site of the digging in Panama was surrounded by swamps, where the mosquitoes happily lived and bred, and spread disease.
So only after this link was discovered and suitable precautions and sanitation was introduced, could the Panama canal venture triumph. The swamps were dried, mosquito nets were placed over beds, in came window screens and fumigation, and so the engineering works could plunge ahead, and the journey from one side of the globe to the other became shorter, quicker, safer and cheaper. You could say the entire world trade benefitted from an engineering feat that relied on a medical discovery.
That's Cause and Effect.

And here's another one closer to my home, and which may sound just as odd.
I would like to suggest that partly one of the reasons that property prices are so high in Israel, is because we take large curves in order to turn left at intersections.
Obvious isn't it?

You are driving straight, and you come to an intersection. When do you start turning the wheel? In England, one is taught to slow down, and only when you have come absolutely in line with the turning you want to turn into – so you're practically looking down the destination street – then you turn the wheel, sharply, by 90 degrees, make your turn, and off you go.
It means you may very well be sitting plum in the centre of a major intersection, but, hey, what's life without some scary moments?

In Israel, though, the Powers That Be - that bunch of incompetent penpushers in the Ministry of Transport, Traffic Jams, and General Misery – have decided that, like children, the Israeli driver cannot possibly be expected to exercise such judgment, and good driving skills. So the Ministry insists that any junction must provide enough turning curve, for those turning left, that wouldn't tax a 12-year old with only one hand on the steering wheel.
So instead of minimal sized intersections, like this:

We end up with much larger intersections, like this:
US Department of Transportation

Note the painted white lines to indicate the sweeping turning curve. This curve allows the driver to drive faster, think less (two reasons that make this more dangerous) and it also results in a far larger intersection. The halt line for each approaching road has to be further from the center in order to allow for this curve.
End result: larger intersections, wasted space. Take a closer look when you're passing a junction. Try and find the smallest junction and see why it can be so small. Maybe no left turns are allowed.

And if the junctions took up less space, we'd have more space for more buildings. Supply of housing could rise, and maybe…just maybe… the extortionate price of housing in Israel would drop.

Causal links are not always obvious. But I think if we encouraged drivers to slow down and turn more sharply, and carefully, on a smaller space, then maybe flats in downtown Tel Aviv would become more affordable.

And try cutting down on sugar, too.