Wednesday, 21 December 2011

And now a word from our sponsors

This is a classic headline from an English newspaper. It must be very very old (even I can’t remember Freddie Starr), but the point, is: What a brilliant headline! It grabbed your attention, didn’t it? Admit it:)
But one must remember that that’s the game with newspapers, or the media in general. It’s not to inform, to educate, to spread the word, but rather it’s all about selling, grabbing attention, and drumming up custom.
I once worked in the print newspaper industry (there, now you can guess my age. A newspaper? What, a real one? Made of paper? where the ink comes off in your hands? Well, I must be, what, at least 75 years old?)
And it was a real experience. One learns what to put in a headline, and what not. “Pensions” for example. This is a non-starter. As the business editor, I naturally had an article on pensions now and again, and my challenge for that shift was to get it in the paper with some snazzy headline that grabs the attention, but avoids the p-word. Well I had fun trying.
The papers have their agenda. Usually it’s stirring things up, dramatisation, exaggeration, misreporting.
Often the reporters are lazy (I’m being kind here) and simply regurgitate some story, or article from a given source, without thought or reflection or even questioning.
When I was new to the industry, working at a leading newspaper in Israel, there was a run-of-the-mill industrial dispute story, and it stated that the workers were arguing for more than 10%. So I, naively, asked the reporter “10% of what?” He hesitated, obviously momentarily thrown by the audacity of a heavily-accented newcomer, and then replied “In Israel, we just say X%”.
Now I was stunned. By his ignorance, his lack of concern, and unprofessionalism.
I won’t start comparing to when I worked for the Financial Times in London, where the reporters there were first and foremost experts of their field, and secondly reporters.
Instead, to help you see through some of the sloppiness, here are some pointers.
Resignation: You may recall that back in the summer of 2008 Ehud Olmert announced his “resignation”. Now the papers had a field-day. Who wouldn’t, with the resignation of a sitting prime minister, and especially in the case of Olmert, who was constantly being badgered at the time from left, right and centre, by accusations of corruption, general mishandling of the Lebanon War, and generally being even more incompetent than he was when he was mayor of Jerusalem. Only Olmert, wily politician (and lawyer - double whammy) was really orchestrating the event. He was the one who called the press conferences and generally managed the direction of reporting. The following day he was still prime minister, and still head of his party. In effect, it wasn’t a resignation at all. It was an advance notice that, due to popular demand, he would not be heading his party at the time of the next election. But the press just went along with what was fed them.
Cuts: This is very common in Israel. “The cabinet today argued over cuts to the budget of more than 2 billion shekels”. But when you start reading the small print you see that it’s not a cut but a redistribution. They’re actually discussing a cut from one department, say education, so that another, say defence, gets more. At the end of the day, that’s not a cut. But the Israeli press for some reason can’t bring itself to say “Government decided to spend more on defense today, but cut spending elsewhere to pay for it”.
Reforms: This is an old one. Pay close attention next time the press in Israel report on a “reform”. Reform sounds dramatic, sweeping, well thought out, far-reaching. But really all they mean is “change”. As in "VAT goes up by 1%". That’s not a reform. Simply raising or lowering an existing tax is not a reform. Abolishing income tax and instead slapping taxes on frowning, or telling an unfunny joke, now that would be a reform.
Some follow-up on earlier blogs:

  • In ‘Why didn’t the chicken cross the road?’ (Dec. 7), I described a ridiculously pedestrian-unfriendly junction just by Komemiyut station. Well that last lane, the one without a zebra crossing, now has traffic lights. They’re not working yet, but they’re there. (It’s still an unfriendly junction, though).
  • In ‘Hugh. Pugh. Barney McGrew.’ (Oct. 26) I described the laughable misnaming of the bus stop near Arlozoroff train station. Well, the other day a bus pulled up near the station, though on the other side of the intersection, and from there the station’s not readily visible. The bus did not have one of those recorded announcers. So the driver announced “Rakevet Tsfon Merkaz Savidor’ (Train North Savidor Central) which seems like plenty of information. And a young fellow, obviously not from Tel Aviv, went up to the driver and asked ‘Is this Arlozoroff?’ (Answer yes). I rest my case!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Why didn't the chicken cross the road?

Easyjet, the nofrills airline, recently covered all its flight destinations in a celebratory issue of its inflight magazine. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking. A review of an airline’s inflight magazine? What depths has this blog sunk to?!! But wait, my, friends. We’re talking about a nofrill airline, with no inflight entertainment, no meal, no drinks, no old episodes of Ramzor, no dumbed-down, child-friendly inflight version of Kill Bill. What else has one to do but read the magazine?). Anyway, the front cover of this magazine depicted each and every one of Easyjet’s destinations, from Barcelona to Inverness to Copenhagen. And there I was searching for the iconic representation of Tel Aviv. Looking... looking... Nothing! OK, well maybe some icon of Jerusalem then. Looking.... looking.... Nothing! Guess what Easyjet had chosen as their symbol for Israel.
The Holon Design Museum.
And they’re no fools. The Design Museum is a state-of-the-art museum, designed by internationally acclaimed Ron Arad, opened in March 2010, to rave reviews.
And it’s not in Tel Aviv. Or Jerusalem. Or even Haifa or Rishon. It’s in Holon.
Yes Holon. The city that never sleeps. Sorry, got that slightly wrong. Holon, the city next door the city that never sleeps. Holon (or correctly Cholon, as in Hebrew it is written with the guttural chet חולון The name comes from the Hebrew word חול chol, meaning sand) has done wonders in recent years, ever so subtly creeping up all sorts of leagues. Under the mayorship of Moti Sasson, a Holonite born and bred, the city has been awarded 5 gold stars by the Council for a Beautiful Israel. (If you’re interested, check out the Council for a Beautiful Israel. You can’t miss it, it’s housed in a concrete eyesore in the middle of Tel Aviv’s Hayakon Park. Mmmmm, makes you think. Obviously the word “beautiful” doesn’t quite survive the translation)
Anyway, current mayor Moti Sasson has emphasised children in his revival of the city, and Holon can now boast a Cartoon Museum, a Digital Art Center, a Cinematheque, and a children’s theater, as well as plenty of parks and street art. Sasson himself, in the post since 1993 (which for an Israeli politician, is an achievement in itself) has been instrumental in many of the city’s changes. In 2010, he was named by Britain’s Monocle magazine as one of the 10 “freshest movers and shakers in urban politics worldwide.” Though the city is small (pop. 185,000) the mayor thinks big. As Sasson said, “It may sound bombastic, but we would like [Holon] to be the cultural center of the Middle East.”
Cultural center it may be, but a fine example of public transportation design it is not.
Let’s look at Holon’s brand new Komemiyut station.

As you can see from this wonderful shot, the station floats in a transport island. It is boxed in, slap in the centre of a monstrous intersection, with the site bounded by (going clockwise, from bottom left hand corner) a cemetery, a stadium, the edge of a residential district, and a municipal waste of space. The railroad itself runs neatly north to south down the center of the Ayalon Highway. The station naturally ends up under a bridge which carries the local highway over the Ayalon. So maybe the positioning of the station is a “given”, a fixed point. What surrounds the station isn’t. So let’s see what Mayor Sasson and his Middle Eastern cultural gurus have designed for the traveling public.
For a start no one can claim to work “right by the station”. There are no offices, no shops, no colleges, no institutions, in fact pretty much no buildings right by the station. As I say, it “floats”, as if it was plopped from above in the thick of a spaghetti junction.
Clearly there are people that live nearby. They can at least claim to “live right by the station”. So let’s follow Dorit Meshulam, one of those lucky few, as she winds her merry way home from the station.
She steps off the train, and climbs the 46 steps to the concourse. She leaves the station building (opened in September 2011, spick and span, toilets are impeccable). She turns right and walks 100 meters, crossing the entrance to the bicycle park (spacious, room for 56 bicycles) as she does so. At the lights she crosses a single lane, and continues. After 50 meters, she crosses a further 2 lanes (this is the slip road from the Ayalon Highway). She swivels to her left, and now waits for another set of lights to change. She crosses the 4 lanes to the island in the middle, and finally crosses a further 3 lanes. She is now on the northern side of the bridge. To get to her house--remember she lives in the nearest building to the station--she now needs only cross the northern slip road to the Ayalon. This is a slip road, leading off from the 4-lane traffic heading west at this point, so it’s a wide, fast road, and here we get to see the municipality’s sense of humour: THERE IS NO PEDESTRIAN CROSSING AT THIS POINT.
Well I think the message is clear there. Sure let’s build roads, let’s build railroads. Let’s pour billions of public money at Israel Railways. But where’s the access? Where’s the thought? What possible attention to detail has left the nearest living Holonites (I've ignored the late lamented Holonites who are actually nearer the station) cut off from a station that they can actually glimpse from their bedroom windows. They only have to walk almost 200 meters and cross 11 lanes of traffic and wait for four separate sets of traffic lights. Just to catch a train. That is, if they can get to the other side.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

V'Ayn Kol Chadash Tachat Hashemesh

One naturally makes mistakes in a language that isn’t one's own. So I have, in my time, made the odd gaffe or two in Hebrew. Fairly new in the country back in the last millennium, I was asked what I did for a living. I’m a civil engineer, I wanted to say, mehandes ezrachi מהנדס אזרחי, only it came out mehandes atzbani מהנדס עצבני, a nervous engineer.
But learning the language of the country in which you have chosen to live is, I think, a prerequisite for making it your true home. And Hebrew, in my humble opinion, is a logical, well thought out, and relatively easy language to master. Some words, in particular, stand out, because they sound fun, or warm, or beautiful, or odd, or fascinating. Or because of their etymology, their history.
Bakbouk בקבוק, for example, which means bottle. It’s called that because when you pour a drink out of a bottle, doesn’t it make the sound “bakbookbakboobakbook....”?
Chukka lukka (pronounced chuck a lucker) צ’אקה לאקה is a fun word. OK, the purists may say, that’s not a real Hebrew word. Maybe it isn’t. But it sounds too odd to miss. And what does it mean? It’s the siren on a police car or ambulance.
Chashmal (sounds like hush mull, but beginning with a hard “ch” as if you were clearing your throat) חשמל. It’s a dead common word. It’s the word for electricity. But electricity wasn’t around when ancient Hebrew was being spoken. The word had to be created.
Where did the English word for electricity come from? Electron, which was the ancient Greeks' word for amber, that shiny burnt orange stone. The Greeks, as reported by Thales of Miletus, noticed that if you rub amber with fur it creates some frisson, a force that can attract hair (or balloons, if they had them back then), sometimes even a spark if you rubbed long and hard enough.
Is the word chasmal found in the bible? It is. Among other places, in Ezekiel Chapter 1, 4 and what did it mean then?: "And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire." 
So today's Hebrew word for electricity comes from the ancient word for amber, which in ancient Greek gave its name to today's English word for electricity. It's all connected!

The first school in the country that taught in modern Hebrew was… have a guess, go on, where? (answer later on) which began teaching all subjects in Hebrew in 1888, at the same time that Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man responsible for taking biblical Hebrew and reviving it, was living in Jerusalem. In reinventing a fairly dead language (still breathing--though not getting out much and having fun--thanks to its use in Jewish prayers) Eliezer Ben Yehuda had to not only encourage others to use the language, but to think up new words fit for every day life in the late 19th/early 20th century.
When the staff at this school (it was in Rishon Lezion, did you guess it?) found that there was a word missing from the new language, they would write to Eliezer Ben Yehuda. For example, they wrote and said that there was no word for towel. (Apparently Noah and his family didn’t need one, neither did Moses as he led the children of Israel across the dry sea, and as for the Egyptians... well they didn’t require drying off either. Do you think there was some sort of conspiracy just to keep the word towel out of the bible?)
So Ben Yehuda had a think. And he took the word negev, from the Negev, that expanse of very dry land in the south of Israel, and from that he fashioned the word lenagev, to dry, and one step on, magevet, towel. Isn’t that brilliant?

I moved to Israel in 1995, and learned the language on an intensive course, common among immigrants, called an ulpan. And it just so happened that Ben Yehuda’s daughter, Dora, was still alive (just, she must have been over 90). So our ulpan invited her to come over and chat to some of us about growing up in that extraordinary family. We, the chosen few who were invited to the talk (the top two classes, I had to overcome my natural modesty just to add that detail) were in the room waiting for her to arrive. Waiting and waiting. Finally a teacher came in laughing, and told us why there was a delay.
They’d sent a taxi to go and pick Dora Ben Yehuda up. The taxi driver had got to the address, found this old lady standing on the corner, and bundled her into the cab. But only when they got to the ulpan did they discover that it wasn’t her. The taxi driver had simply pounced on an innocent old lady standing on the street. No wonder she’d struggled, he said.
And the revival works. It is an incredible story. As the acclaimed writer David Grossman once said, “If my son today were to meet our forefather Abraham, they could at least have a reasonable conversation with each other”.
lsrael is an extraordinary place, and Hebrew is an extraordinary language. We in Israel should congratulate ourselves that, just by saying boker tov in the morning, we are part of a remarkable achievement.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Should do better. See me after class

This summer was one of social protest, and our politicians, now refreshed and returned to the trough for the winter session of parliament, are keen to appear as if they are all part of this social revolution.
Meir Sheetrit, a member of Knesset who has never worked in the private sector in his life, came up with a brilliant idea. He proposed a law that would exempt young couples, and singles, from paying VAT on their first homes. (If it sounds a little odd to say "young couples and singles", well that's the odd wording of his proposal. I can just imagine he first wrote "young couples" until someone pointed out how that was discriminatory, so he added in "and singles"). Well that’s fabulous, and who knows how many thousands of votes that will... I mean how many thousands of young couples that will help get on the first rung of the property ladder. Respect Meir! Way to go!

Now you’ve been nodding and thinking “Well that is good news. It would really help.” If that’s the case, then I would suggest that you too consider becoming a politician, because our MKs - particularly life-long careerists like Sheetrit - are full of such knee-jerk reactions, but are too hurried/exhausted/stupid to actually investigate their own suggestions. All knees and no brains. [Not that I'm implying that you are..., heaven forbid.]

This bill, if you look at it, will result in the exact opposite of what it purportedly set out to achieve, in this case help potential homebuyers in a very expensive market.

A market consists of buyers and sellers (that is demand and supply). Currently our housing market is overheated; many thousands of people in the market are fighting over too few properties, or at least not enough in the areas of highest demand. Hence the high prices. And Sheetrit’s solution is to shave the cost for young homebuyers. Will this allow some couples, who currently are struggling to get enough funds together to buy a flat, put in a bid for a home? Yes, of course it would. That’s what the bill is there for. The result? Well, whereas before you may have had three couples bidding for a flat in downtown Petah Tikva, now you’ll have five couples (the extra two are those facing no VAT, thanks to Meir). Prices were high when three fought over the property. What will happen when five are in the game? Prices will go up. I predict (and this is all on my ownsome, with no monstrous BankofIsrael econometric model pumping out statistics for me) I predict, as I say, that if this bill gets passed, then house prices will go up, ceteris paribus. (STOP THERE! Latin alert! Yes, now some of you, who may not have had the benefits of a fine English education, may be flummoxed somewhat by Latin expressions. Don’t be. They are not there to perturb, per se. They serve a purpose. They can explain succinctly what it was you wanted to say. And in this case, I meant “all other things being equal”. In other words (id est) if nothing else changes that also affects housing, then this will result in higher house prices.)

And it doesn’t surprise me.

Knesset, that venerable, risible institution, is full of charlatans, and I mean that in a nice way. I mean they are amateurs. They discover a problem on Monday, suggest a solution on Tuesday, and pass a new law on it by Thursday. The following week, they discover that instead of helping, the new law has actually made things worse.

Here’s another example of a half-baked law by half-baked politicians. Back in 2000, the Knesset adopted an amendment to the Law on Employing Workers through Manpower Agencies. The change in the law stated that "A worker via a manpower agency shall not be employed by an employer for a period of more than nine months." The aim, supposedly, was to change the status of thousands of agency workers, very often employed for months if not years, sitting next to inhouse workers, possibly doing the same work, but for less pay, and on shakier grounds in terms of conditions, pensions or perks.
Only the result was clear for all to see. Employers were likely to dismiss workers just as the nine-month deadline approached. The implementation of the law was postponed FOUR times, and finally came into force in 2008. It has caused disruption, instability, and heartache for the very people it was intended to help. One case involving a manpower agency used by the Israel Antiquities Authority has reached the courts after 21 workers were dismissed, and then immediately replaced by other agency workers.

Maybe our politicians should do a little more homework. Parliamentary bills in England are routinely sent to everybody that might be affected—individuals, companies, unions, trade organizations, professional bodies—for their feedback and input, and this preparatory stage takes at least a year. The result? Laws that work, are respected, and stick around for ages.

Sheetrit's bill by the way was chucked out of Knesset this week by 44 votes to 32. There is hope yet. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Hugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Yossi

Did you hear of the racehorse named Wanwan? Or his mate Tutu?
Here’s a little ditty about them:
11 was a racehorse
22 was 12
1111 race
Which demonstrates nothing in particular, but introduces today’s topic of Names.
As Shakespeare put it over 400 years ago:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Would Rapunzel agree? Would Puccini have written Nessun Dorma if that was so?
* * *
Let’s try an exercise. Have you ever been to Banyas? Or the Flour Cave? Yes to both maybe, if you’re in Israel and fairly well traveled (it’s only a small country). But have you ever been to Savidor Central? Now that may sound familiar.... it rings a bell... I'm sure I've heard it before... Give up, where is it?

Well, it’s Israel Railways' name for Arlozoroff station in Tel Aviv. Everyone else calls it Arlozoroff, it’s on Arlozoroff Street, it’s next to the bus station which the locals also call Arlozoroff. (Well even the bus station isn’t technically called Arlozoroff bus station. Egged, the major bus company, calls it Terminal 2000, as if anyone traveling there 11 years ago died on the journey.) In fact the only ones who don’t call the train station Arlozoroff are some oldtimers-- who still refer to it as Train North (רכבת צפון) to differentiate it from the other station down south, which makes it wonderfully confusing, as ‘North’ becomes an alternative name for ‘Central’--and Israel Railways, who insist on naming the station after Menachem Savidor, who I’m sure was a superb chairman of the railways over 40 years ago, but, in all due respect, is not known by anyone travelling to and from Tel Aviv today.
And the same goes for Hashalom Station, which is another very popular stop in Tel Aviv and which everyone else, other than the railway company, calls Azrieli, the name of the large office/shopping complex that sits atop the station. (I’ve been wondering how long it would take to get atop into a blog. You just don’t see that word around enough these days.)
Now the considerate Jerusalem council has placed large signs all over its city telling you the name of each suburb. This is incredibly helpful to the residents of Jerusalem, who uptill now had only vague ideas of where they lived, and were completely lost if they had to rely on the kindness of others to send them in the right direction after their customary wild drinking bout downtown lasting way into the early hours of the... well way past 9 in the evening, anyway. Now helpful passersby can rely on the useful signs when the drunkard in question asks “Could you point me the way home? I live in Rasco, thanks”.
Only there too one can be confused. Some of the signposts give you two names, the official one, Like So, and the other one (Like So). That’s because there are official names of areas, say Manchat, which no one uses, and the popular names, which in this case is Malcha. And given that the sign, as with every roadsign, is in Hebrew, English and Arabic, it makes for a busy board.

But I’m not pointing all this out just for the fun of it. (If I wanted to do something just for the fun of it, I'd be sitting in the Prime Minister's Office planning the athletes' village for when Israel hosts the Olympics). No, I'm pointing this name business out because it can be misleading, and it could certainly make a difference to people not familiar with the area.

Recently some buses in Tel Aviv were equipped with a recorded information system. As the bus pulls up at each stop, a well spoken lady announces over the loudspeaker the name of the street, the address, even, in some cases, “the courthouse” or some such useful tidbit of info. This is indeed an applaudable step, and well worth an extra vote or two for the mayor. Only what was the bus company thinking when it chose to name, and record, one such bus stop by its street name: “Al Parshat Drachim”? I doubt you could find three people in Tel Aviv who know where that is. And that’s not surprising, either. It’s not a terribly long or famous street. Oddly it has no buildings on it, no shops, no houses, no bars, no football stadium, not even a kiosk. In fact no one would ever have read an address containing Al Parshat Drachim. But Dan, the bus company, somehow thinks that that’s what will help those passengers who need to alight at this stop. And where exactly is this bus stop? It is the stop opposite Arlozoroff, sorry Savidor, sorry Terminal 2000,... er um.. I mean, you know, it’s the stop you want to get off to catch a bus or train at the major transport hub of the country’s largest metropolis. You’d think that a bus that announces “Arlozoroff train and bus station” would be more helpful. 
Go figure.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

And you don't look a day over 5760, kayn ein hora

The Jewish New Year 5772 began this week. It's a time of internal reflection, according to our belief, of repentance, of resolutions, if you must, and looking ahead. Is it a time of jokes? Well only if it's completely relevant such as this one….
A man died and went to heaven, but at the pearly gates, there seemed to be some holdup. St. Peter (ok, so it's not ENTIRELY in keeping with the Jewish tradition, but I'm allowed some license here, folks) was flicking and flicking through his book, struggling to find the man's name. Finally he found it. "You see," St. Peter explained," you haven't been all that bad, but you haven't been all that good either. Now if you can tell me about some good deed you did that could tip the balance…" (You see, I knew there was a connection with our Ten Days of Repentance somewhere).
"Indeed, there was" replied the surprisingly well spoken recently deceased. "I was once driving along the highway, when I saw at the side of the road a gang of punks picking on a young woman, defenseless and alone. So I stopped the car, and called out. Immediately the gang turned around, and began to congregate around me. As the leader – a big brute of a fellow – came right up to me, I told him to leave the woman alone, and, just to make sure the message got through, I pulled his chain that went from his nose to his ear."
St. Peter was impressed. "When did this happen?" he asked.
"Oh about a couple of minutes ago," came the answer.
(Thanks to a friend of a friend for that one).

Now someone described my blog as "moaning". That is not true. Other people moan, you grumble, I make constructive criticism.
And just to prove it, here, in honour of 5772, for my family and friends, for my followers and fans, for my muses and consultants, and in honour of the State of Israel, I have prepared just a sample list of the wonders and joys that we should be grateful for here in Israel. So we thank Him for:
۞ The good weather, the rain in its season, and the sun and humidity in its season too, for desert coolers, when absolutely necessary, but most of all for the sea breeze which comes as far as my living room even in August. ۞ For the Bauhaus school of the arts, and for that extraordinary timing, which saw the school close in 1933, sending freshly trained architects and designers to the flourishing new city of Tel Aviv-on-Sea, and which resulted in the densest collection of Bauhaus style buildings in the world. ۞ For the unsung heroes and citizens of Israel that make this country what it is, that have made deserts bloom, the sun produce hot water, and through sheer collective willpower have managed to drive down the price of cottage cheese by up to 10%. ۞ For the wonderful taxi drivers, who continue to put in a full day's work even if their meters are broken, but especially for the taxi driver who drops you off after a 40 minute journey to some wedding hall out in the sticks, but insists on not being paid until the return journey. This is a driver who does not know you from Adam, does not have your phone number, but he'll back later, on trust, to take you back home. ۞ For the truly beautiful Israelis. It's a pleasure to be allowed to ogle them, gratis. An ogle a day keeps the doctor away. ۞ For falafel, shwarma, for humous fool, and me'urav yerushalmi (that's a greasy mishmash of last year's favourite bits of meat, slowly cooked over a warm match, served in a damp towel). ۞ For Eliezer Ben Yehuda who took a comatose Biblical Hebrew and made it living again.  ۞For a society so relatively free of crime, that the elderly can walk the streets and sit on park benches at night, without fear.  ۞ For the 300,000 who turned out to protest in favor of social justice in Tel Aviv's Kikar Hamedina, the heart of the city's upper-class, luxury goods shopping circle, and yet did not lay a finger on even one shop window. ۞ For the outstanding Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and Zubin Mehta, its Indian conductor who can even charm his audience with ein bischen of Yiddish.  ۞ For the best fresh fruit and vegetables, sold in vibrant outdoor markets. ۞ For Jerusalem's light rail system, which has eventually become a reality. For those waiting for the moshiach, apparently he's arriving on the Tel Aviv light rail, so keep praying. ۞ For the beaches, and for the mysterious workings of His hand above (or plate tectonics, depending on how you look at it) for pointing our coast exactly west so that we, who manage to get there after a day in the office, can feast our eyes on a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean Sea.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Two down. Seven million, four hundred and forty one thousand to go.

All Israeli men up to the age of 40 are required to do army reserve duty (מילואים miluim in Hebrew) for anything up to a month each year. I quite enjoyed my reserve duty, as many do. It can be a bit of fun, in some ways, away from the trouble and strife, an opportunity to be macho, and to leave the humdrum office world behind. I always saw it as some sort of open prison sentence, bringing you into contact with all walks of Israeli society, and making you appreciate the finer points of life (solid buildings, normal work hours, soft toilet paper).
On one occasion, I was assigned to a jeep patrol, together with my officer and a driver. We drove around the area – beautiful desert countryside, gorgeous weather, no complaints this end – until we decided to pull up somewhere, get out the old primus stove and make coffee. As we sat and drank the thick, sweet coffee, the others began chatting about whatever was the political hot subject at the time, I can't remember what. The driver – a young Russian immigrant, brawny, imposing, great fellow to have on your side – expressed his opinion, and the officer – a young second generation Israeli, intelligent, terribly polite, hi-techie, with a degree in Chinese – gave his. And then, being the well brought up fellow he was, he asked my opinion.
The real problem, I said, was the voting system. 
You see Israel has a simple, proportional representative electoral system, and the country acts as one single constituency. Voters get to choose a party, and each party wins seats in the legislature in direct proportion to the percentage they garner of total votes cast. If Party A gets 10% of the vote, then Party A gets to fill 10% of the seats in parliament. Simple, straightforward. 
Only this system, as I explained to my audience of two, has a terrible flaw: There is no direct link between these elected representatives and the electorate. No link, and therefore no accountability. (To prove the point, there's no word in Hebrew for accountability). If the country were split, electorally speaking, into constituencies (wards, boroughs, call them what you will), then each area would elect their own rep, and he/she would be answerable (another word missing from the Hebrew lexicon) to that local population.
Well at that point we had to get back to our patrol. We clambered back on board: the driver, the officer, and me the "soldier". The wind was quite fierce, particularly as we were zooming around in an open jeep, so there was no chatting as we drove. Until we reached our next view point, where the driver stopped, and we all got down from the jeep. Immediately the officer – let's give him a name, shall we..., yes, Shahar - turned to me and said "Well it wouldn't work here." (He'd clearly been thinking about what I'd said). "Israel's too small. The constituencies would be too small." But we're bigger, or more populous, than Ireland, Finland, Denmark, I answered. And anyway, in municipal elections in Israel, towns are also "small". You don't need a minimum size.

We completed our patrol of the area. Shahar called through to our base, and we hopped back on the jeep, and continued to survey the beautiful countryside. The wind whizzing past, the sun shining.
Now we came to a tourist spot, a ridge providing a panorama of the rocky desert. We stopped, alighted. Shahar turned to me. "No, it still wouldn't work. The religious areas would all vote for the religious parties." Not so. Such wards may indeed plump for a religious candidate, but you'd find that every major, political party would put up as their candidate in that area a married, religiously orthodox man. You'd find that this system would in fact adopt and internalize the features of our multi-cultured society within the parties, I said, instead of picking on these differences and using them as wedges to sever sectors of society for political gain.
And so it seemed, that at each stop, after clearly thinking about it some more, Shahar brought up another objection, a flaw with this proposed system. And I would offer some defense.
Finally, we reached the base. The driver parked the jeep. We unloaded our equipment. Shahar turned to me, with one last comment, "So how do we change our system then?"
So there is hope. At this rate, I should be able to convince the entire Israeli population in time for the elections in 2156J
Shahar, bear in mind, is educated and intelligent. I was surprised that he had no idea what other electoral systems there are. He had no idea that Israel is actually alone in the democratic world in this respect, having only a single constituency. Every other country, from tiny Luxembourg (half a million population, 4 constituencies) to India (hundreds of millions and 543 constituencies) recognizes the necessity of direct personal elections. It keeps the elected representative on his toes and in touch with the public mood. This was very much an aspect of this summer's vast social protests. Our elected legislature, the politicians, were out of touch. They have no link with the ordinary voter. They don't come across them when traveling on the buses, or queuing in the supermarkets, or waiting in line to renew a passport. 

Back in the early days, when I was new and wet behind the ears in the country, I visited some elderly relatives. They were a retired school teacher and bank director. Real Israelis. And I expressed my opinion that the electoral system should be changed. I'm used to the typical Israeli response "But that wouldn't work here." Not so from this couple. They immediately responded, "But that's just what Ben Gurion said."

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Engine on. Lights on. Seat belt on. Brain off.

Now why are so many killed on the roads in Israel? Last year there were 394 fatalities, and many more injured, slightly up on the 370 killed in 2009. That's more than one person dying on our roads every day.
Our record has improved, though at 4.1 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants, we're still behind the likes of Sweden (2.9) or the UK (3.6). Maybe an international comparison is inappropriate, and we should simply be aiming for 0 fatalities a year.
So what can be done?
First let's have a dig at the Ministry of Transportation. Though there are definitely some professionals there, there are also plenty of middling, bumbling clerks, overstretching their capabilities, imposing their small-minded practices on the rest of the country. For example, for the planned new mass transit systems of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Ministry of Transportation issued a thick, detailed design manual. Well that's very useful. The manual was based on the Ministry's umpteen years of experience of building light rail systems, I suppose. (For those of you outside of Israel, you should know that, up until this month, there was no light rail system anywhere in the country).
But I really take umbrage (you should try taking it tooJ) at the Ministry's philosophy of mollycoddling Israeli drivers.
For example, have you noticed that traffic lights are placed both before and after junctions? Take a look next time you're sitting at the lights. Abroad, the traffic lights might appear only before the junction. But if you place them only there, then drivers would have to come to a halt actually at the stop line. The Israeli practice of having another light on the far side of the junction allows drivers to overshoot the mark, and stop actually on the crossing, creating inconveniences for the pedestrians. (The who? Yes, those people that get in the way of drivers).
The Israeli driver is a fool and a menace, thinks the Ministry, so we must treat him as such. He is incapable of making reasonable judgments. Therefore, when you come to a junction – now pay attention next time – and it's your turn to turn left, you don't have to worry about crashing into any oncoming cars because, in contrast to elsewhere, the lights in Israel will stop the oncoming traffic. The powers-that-be have decided that you, the Israeli driver, are incapable of judging the speed and distance of other road-users.

Or sometimes you get two roads, both one-way, roughly coming from the same direction, that merge to form a larger road. Abroad, the lights would allow everyone to enter the "joint" road at the same time. No, too difficult for the Israeli driver, decides the Ministry and so you'll find that the two merging roads have their own traffic light phase.

So Israeli drivers are rarely called upon to think, or judge, or hone their driving skills.

But are they inherently bad drivers? I don't believe so. Just the other day, the traffic lights at a busy Tel Aviv junction (Shaul Hamelech, Namir and Begin roads) temporarily failed during the afternoon rush hour. This is where four major roads meet, in a flattened X shape, with at least four lanes coming from each direction. So what happened when the lights failed? You could imagine a dreadful pile-up, but that wasn't the case. I stopped and watched. The speed of the traffic slowed, but everyone managed to get across, somehow. It was noisier, admittedly, with a cacophony of klaxons, but the intersection actually worked.

So why not permanently take away the traffic lights? And while you're at it, all road markings, white lines, signposts? Maybe the roads would be safer. That's not such a crazy idea. (As Polonius said "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.") Treating drivers more responsibly may actually make them better, safer drivers.
Some traffic designers (a fascinating bunch of people, you should try and crash one of their parties) argue exactly that. Several cities have taken such a step, in selected places, such as Exhibition Road or Seven Dials in London, or the town of Makkinga in the Netherlands. One traffic junction there where traffic lights were removed [see picture above] saw accidents plummet from 36 in the four years before the change in policy, to only two in the two years following it.

I'm not arguing we should change all roads like so, but we could start by treating Israeli drivers as responsible adults, and not children that need spoon-feeding with wide lanes, one-way streets, and traffic lights on even the quietest residential roads. And then maybe our roads would become safer for all. 

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

An affordable home? Certainly, madam. Would you like that wrapped?

This summer has been one long series of rallies. The protests, loosely led by the taxpaying, hard-slogging, reserve-duty-serving, middle-income earners of Israel, are predominantly about the lack of affordable housing in Israel, particularly in the most popular parts of the country.
Property prices have indeed skyrocketed in recent years, while incomes have barely moved. And some of the banner-waving crowds argue that this clearly shows that capitalism has failed, and blame the free market. Down with the tycoons, they shout, accusing the prime minister of giving in to the developers, helping them get richer while Mr and Mrs Average fall far behind in the ratrace. A typical apartment in Israel today costs the equivalent of 114 times the average monthly salary. Compare that to the average home in France costing 90 times the average wage there, or 71 in Britain, or just 54 in Germany.
Israelis, on average, have reason to despair.
But I don't think the free market is to blame. On the contrary, the situation we are in today is because THERE IS NO FREE MARKET in housing in Israel.

First let's all agree on what a free market is. If you imagine a typical old market scene, such as in this delightful picture from Cambridge England, then you're already on the right track. It's where lots of buyers and sellers meet. Economics (the study of how we use and distribute scarce resources) goes a little further to describe what it calls a perfect market. It makes some assumptions such as: everyone acts rationally, which, for arguments sake, let's say, is true even in Israel; there is perfect information, i.e. everyone's aware of what's happening in the market; no one buyer or seller dominates the market (and hence the price), and there are no barriers to anyone becoming a seller; and the good or service is homogenous i.e. each product is identical.
Sounds idealistic? Unreasonable? Exists only in textbooks or in the minds of professors and philosophers? Not so. The market in Teva shares, let's say, is a fine example. It's a homogenous product; there are millions of buyers and sellers; no one stops you selling; and it's pretty easy to keep track of prices.
So what? I hear one or two of you asking. So we have a free market. What good does that do anyone? Where's the social justice in that? Hold on, hold on, my little pumpkins, we're not there yet.
The result of such a perfect market is the "right price". And what do I mean by the right price? I mean the price that clears the market.
If the price is "too high", two things happen: more sellers step in to cash in on the top price, and two, buyers get put off as it's too costly. True? In other words, supply rises and demand falls. These two work together to push the price down.
Conversely, if the price is "too low", some suppliers will get discouraged, pack up and go home, waiting for a better occasion to make their profits, while more buyers will rush to the market to snap up a bargain. Result? Supply falls and demand rises. Both of these move to push up the price.
So buyers and sellers interact in the free market until they reach the "right price" (or what economists call, the equilibrium price), where supply meets demand. Ten people are shopping for the goods, and ten goods are on sale at the price they're prepared to pay. Voila, everyone's happy. The market clears.
Now let's look at housing in Israel. It's a far far cry from the free market. Prices today are "too high", which according to our theory should encourage suppliers to rush to market, putting more of the product on sale. And buyers should slink off home. But they can't slink off home. They haven't bought one yet - it's the housing market, dummy! "Home" is the very product on sale. It's a little more essential to life than a Teva share. So demand does not slack off.
What about supply? Well one of the features we mentioned of a free market was the multitude of suppliers. And suppliers of housing can't build on thin air, they need land. The State, mostly in the guise of מינהל מקרקעי ישראל or the Israel Land Administration (boo, loud noise, jeers) owns over 93% of all the land in Israel. The ILA is terribly reluctant to sell, and not all that keen on renting it out either. So the nanny State of Israel, as the largest landowner, is strangling the housing market, by refusing to allow supply of housing to rise.
It's not the free market that is to blame for a lack of affordable housing in Israel today. The extortionate prices of housing is a textbook indication that someone - the state, let's call it the Soviet Republic of Telavivopolis - is not actually allowing a free market to exist. Go figure.