Wednesday 23 May 2012

Warm, getting warmer ... HOT

In 1937, Sheikh Mohammad Ahmed Abdel Rahim, a wealthy resident of Jaffa, commissioned a new home for him and his family in the neigbourhood of Ajami, and the architect’s brief was clear and simple: the design should respect Rahim’s way of life (which meant private ante-rooms for the women of the family, and other ante-rooms for him to hold private sessions with the many locals who came to consult with him) and secondly, it should make it clear to all from outside that “Here lives the richest man in the neighbourhood”.
And indeed it is a beautiful home. I had a private tour of this delightful International-style house just last week as part of Tel Aviv’s Open House weekend. The weekend allows the public into private homes, and behind the scenes of all sorts of weird, wonderful and architecturally interesting places.
Rahim’s home is now the home of the French ambassador to Israel. It is exquisitely maintained, and furnished in the 1930s style. As we stood there, hearing the explanation of the building from none other than the son of the architect, I certainly felt warm, and that’s because the house still refuses to employ airconditioning. Buildings in those days would have incorporated little tricks and devices to encourage a natural circulation of air, or to minimize exposure to direct sunlight. The natural breeze blowing through the delightful salon was the aircon of the day. How original. And it must surely cut down on their electricity bills.
My next visit on the Weekend for Nosey Parkers was a “green” house, i.e. one that was environmentally friendly. Also in Ajami, this house minimized direct sunlight by facing south, and, in contrast to what you would have expected from a house overlooking the sea, by having no windows looking westward, to the sea. Sunlight was however utilized to light up the basement (clever! how did they do that?), and all the shower runoff water was recycled to water the garden (which was green, flowering, and even sported a vine or two). The high ceilings and overhead fans provided some air circulation, but these were rarely used as the design of the house was such that it kept it cooler, for longer. So again, someone was enjoying lower electricity bills. (The owner actually showed us his bills to prove the point).

I'm a great fan of natural breezes. (

Is this ‘No Aircon’ status likely to catch on?
Well the Israel Electric Corporation, our monopolistic supplier of electricity, is actually encouraging us all to cut down on our aircon this summer. If you can use less electricity during the summer of 2012 than you did in 2011, you will earn yourself a discount of up to 20% off what you pay for your electricity. (Hurry, you must register by the end of the month to be eligible). Turn your aircon on later, turn it off sooner, raise the desired temp by just a tad: these are the useful tidbits of advice from the IEC. But why are they doing this? For our health, bless ‘em? I don’t think so. To help the environment? To help the what?! No, there’s a far simpler reason. The country simply doesn’t have enough electricity!
The all-knowing, all-super IEC is deeply worried that it’s going to run out of electricity one hot day this summer. It simply cannot produce enough electricity to satisfy all the demand around the country. Electricity cannot be stored, so all electricity suppliers across the globe have to be ready at all times. But there’s no point in spending billions on having enough capacity to generate 100 kWh if demand is only for 20. And worse still would be to be in a position to supply just 20, when the country demands 100. So a well managed business would work out just the right balance: investing enough on a “regular” supply capacity, with just the right amount beyond this that would mean it’s ready “just in case”. (Oh look, I managed to get the phrase “well managed business” in the same paragraph as “the Israel Electric Corporation”. I should get a Pulitzer prize for that, surely)
Well the IEC hasn’t quite worked out that “just in case” element. So one day in the summer of 2012, someone somewhere in Israel will turn on a kettle and KABOOM, the whole neighbourhood, town or city will find itself in the dark. We’ll be left with half-ironed shirts and half-cooked buns in the oven.
A well managed electricity supplier would be ready for such an event, but the IEC, instead of planning years ahead, and making the extraordinarily large investments necessary, is instead going for the “You, hey you with the funny haircut, Cut down on your electricity use!” approach.

Now some people like to take a bash at the IEC, but I’m not one of them. You could hold me down and threaten to tickle me, and I still won’t be drawn into that populistic sport. Let others bash it, but not me.
In fact, this week, the Nameless Inefficient Committee of Mostly Politicians or Other Obsolete Penpushers, or NINCOMPOOP for short did just that. The committee (its proper name is the Public Utility Authority: Electricity) rapped the IEC's knuckles very very hard for signing an exclusive gas-supply contract with the Tamar partnership. The IEC had signed a long-term contract with Tamar, which also happens to be a monopoly, with no thought that in the future it would be able to get a better deal, at lower prices. No, instead it had happily signed the contract which, at the end of the day, would mean higher prices for... yes, you guessed it, Jo Shmo. That's you. But I hope this doesn't get you all hot and bothered, because if it does, and you're minded to turn on a fan... oh, voy, voy, we could all go KABOOM.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Principles of economy, efficiency, effectiveness, for sale. Hardly used.

'Off with their heads!' was a favourite cry of the Queen of Hearts.
So how many heads were chopped off following the publication of the latest State Comptroller's report?
Surely you must have read it. There was nothing else worth reading in the past week. "Fascinating, as usual", "a must-read", "couldn't put it down" – were just some of the reviews. "Couldn't pick it up" may be nearer the truth, as it is indeed a weighty tome.
But who exactly is this State Comptroller? I hear you ask. (You may only have been thinking it but I have exceptionally good hearing).
He is a Knesset-appointed position, and his (or her) role is to examine the activities of the executive branch of government (that means the government, not the judges, and not whether the politicians are behaving themselves). In particular he checks that the government has carried out its activities "in line with the principles of economy, efficiency, effectiveness and moral integrity." Well that may keep him busy for Sunday, Monday, possibly Tuesday until tea time, but what does he do the rest of the week?
So in his capacity as ombudsman, too, he is empowered to look into complaints against government offices, state institutions, local governments etc. Well that covers state-owned enterprises like the Israel Electric Corp., though I can't imagine him finding anything untoward there.

The appointment is traditionally filled by a retired judge. The incumbent, Micha Lindenstrauss, has had a very good stretch, building on the strength of one predecessor Miriam Ben Porat, who, despite her advanced age, was sharp as a button. While Ben Porat would write damaging reports, they were always about individual X or Y. I felt quite sorry for X and Y, constantly being blamed, though, if you believed the muck that was unearthed on them, they were nasty pieces of work. However as the miscreants were always hidden behind those innocent letters, nothing was ever corrected.

Lindenstrauss took a bold innovative move, and actually named the individuals in his reports so that lessons could be learnt. Last week he issued one of his last reports (before he retires later this year), which, as usual, is a wonderful document well worth reading while you're waiting for your train to turn up.
In it, he slammed the ministries of finance and transport for the cock-up (sorry, of course he used the more technical term, "balls-up") of the planning of the fast lane into Tel Aviv. The new fast lane was mistakenly placed in a central strip of the existing motorway into Tel Aviv, an area that was designated for a future additional rail track. The mistake will come back to haunt someone--we're not sure who, at this point--when we the taxpayers will have to pay millions of shekels to shift the fast lane somewhere else when they finally get around to adding the fourth rail track. The mistake was discovered years ago, and if someone had acted upon it then, the project could have been diverted before it had even begun.
Lindenstrauss also slammed some misdemeanors at Israel Railways (apparently one of their train drivers earned his qualification from his uncle at the company), at Mekorot, the national water monopoly, (for paying 8 times the market value for land in Ceasarea), and the government (for allowing two dominant corporations to dominate the desalinated water market, without thinking that this could create a dangerous dependence in a country which is thirsty for new sources of water.)

So surely you were knocked over by the number of heads that rolled after each of the Comptroller's reports?
Of course, no one's head rolled, or will roll, because none of our politicians has an individual interest to take up any of the cases.
Had we an electoral system with constituencies, we could each gang up on our local representatives and at least get some response, a question asked in Knesset. Someone would have to respond.
But while we may hope and dream that such a system will get here one day, at least we have something meaty to read: The State Comptroller's Annual Report 2012 available on, all 1804 pages. (I particularly enjoyed the joke in the penultimate paragraph on page 855).
Happy reading