Monday, May 5, 2008

Government Watch

In the Information Technologies (IT) market there is a domain called Application Monitoring (AM) and sometimes Business Process Monitoring (BPM). The company I work for (HP) has some products in that market (PDF here, lots of techinical language but some nice screenshots), and so do others. The paradigms of this practice deals with how to validate the quality and performance of IT systems over time, in production (which means – while the systems are being used). The paradigms has been shifting over the years from monitoring the technology to monitoring the process, and I wonder if we can nudge it just a bit further and make the same thing for monitoring human processes. And if so, can we use it to enhance our public, governmental systems?

Application Monitoring for Dummies (no offence meant)

Let me give a rough explanation on the AM or BPM paradigm (cool word, I’m gonna use it a lot!). The basic assumption of this domain is that IT systems, once deployed and used by real users, do not necessarily maintain their planned quality and performance. This does not require much explanation to anyone who has Windows. One approach to maintain good quality (which means that the process of using the system to achieve the user objective is executed as expected) and good performance (which means that the system is available at all times and any major action can be completed in the expected time frame) is to rigorously test the system before it is being used. Unfortunately for most systems it is unrealistic to test for all scenarios and all possible loads in advance.
The AM idea is to keep ‘testing’ the system even while it’s being used. It started out as a simple hardware monitoring – track the server and see if it works slowly. If it does, then you probably have an issue with your application and you should do something about it. After a while, monitoring added the software as another resource to look at for problems.
AM gradually shifted focus to the user experience and not the system resources. The idea was that what really interests the administrator of the system (in charge of its quality and performance) is not how a server was performing but how a user of the system felt using it. It may turn out that a server is doing fine, but the user still can’t complete the action in the 2-3 seconds he expects. The last stage of AM (usually called BPM) is to define a sequence of user actions on the same issue to be a ‘process’, and then to monitor the quality and performance of the process as a whole, and not to focus on a specific action. Note that these monitored processes may combine human actions and system actions. For example, buying a book at Amazon includes a human action (choosing and ordering the book) and a system action (issuing the book from storage to shipment).
In most cases, organizations which practice AM are doing all three approaches – monitoring the hardware and software resources, monitoring specific user actions and the user experience, and monitoring the business processes.
The end result of AM is usually statistical data shown as graphs and tables, indicating what can currently be done easily and what is difficult (or impossible) to complete. The more advanced products let the administrator look at the data overtime, allowing him to realize trends and come up with insights (for example, that most issues happen at 9am, when people get to work and start using the system).

From computers to people

So can we use similar techniques to monitor human systems? I have in mind the Israeli government offices, for example – can we monitor, visualize and report the time it takes to obtain an Israeli passport? Issue a construction permit? Submit tax returns? And if we could monitor these, what will we gain by doing so?
Most of these processes are not just partly human – they’re mostly (and even wholly) human. To realize how much time it takes to obtain a passport, you need to collect data on how much time it takes to stand in line at the Interior Ministry office nearest to you, how much time it takes for the clerk to go over your documents and sign an application, and how long will you wait until you get the passport in the mail. Unfortunately, only a small portion of this process is fully automated, and waiting until the government will automate it all may take some time (like a few decades). If we want to monitor this process, we probably need an external system, and not rely on the government to build one.
Let me first try and show that there is something to be gained by doing so, and then we can dive into the details of how it may work. My suggested implementation is probably only one way of doing it, but I will use it to help visualize what I’m aiming for.

This is how it feels when your word means something at all

One day you will go to a Web site, say (domain still vacant, if you’re the startup kind of guy) and have a look at an overview of the government offices performance. You may see that the Ministry of Interior offers 127 different procedures, completed on an average time of 2 months and 3 days, and completed successfully 63% of the times. The Ministry of Defense, on the other hand, has only 71 procedures, completed at an average time of a week and 4 days and at 84% success rate. This may interest you or may not – what you’re really interested to know is how much time it may take you to get your marriage certificate.
You search for ‘marriage certificate’ and soon you reach a graph which shows you the average time it takes to obtain one, with an activity breakdown – how much time it will take to schedule a meeting at the Rabanut, how much time it will take to wait there while the Rabbi is out for lunch, how long will you have to suffer the nonsense rumbling of the Rabbanit etc. Even better, you will have a location-based breakdown, showing you how much time it takes at Tel Aviv as opposed to Jerusalem or Sderot.The first obvious gain is that you can make better plans based on this information – decide when to apply for a marriage certificate, for example. The second gain is somewhat less obvious – you may have more trust in the government office, because your expectations will be met, or to be more precise, you will know what to expect and will not be disappointed because a process takes ‘too long’ or is likely to fail.
But user (a.k.a citizen) satisfaction is only the first step forward. Visibility into the governmental procedures, even offered by an external party, will likely drive the office in charge’s motivation to improve. After all, who wants to be publicly known as the slowest DMV office in Israel (backed up with fancy colored graphs)?! And the Web site even offers these offices information on how to better themselves – they can look at the activities and find out bottlenecks and potential improvements, they can see which offices are doing better and then call them up and get some tips. I’m sure that it is very na├»ve of me, but I think it may add another motivation to their work environment, more closely linked with their customer needs than the motivations the government currently provides.
To maximize on this vision, imagine that we have a multitude of such Web sites, one for each state. We then may have another way to measure states and indicate their efficiency and stability (similar to scales such as the Corruption Perceptions Index). One can use the information to decide where to live, but it may even be a diplomacy tool. Imagine the EU insisting that Ukraine will improve the ‘preliminary trial’ procedure time by 10% before joining the EU…

If you build it, they will come (I think)

From wuthering heights, let’s drop down to the possible mechanisms. Again, this is just one possible suggestion, to show that this is an achievable target, and not necessarily the best method.
Let’s assume that the technology to analyze the data and display the visualized results is not an issue. The main challenge of implementing such an approach would be collecting the data in the first place. For IT systems, data collection is done through agents reporting to a main server. These agents are usually small programs which run at a server or a user computer, and monitor the system resources or the user actions. The advanced tools offer automation – mostly of the user actions – so that you will not waste human resources on doing a monitor job.
Can we find analogues to these agents? Our Web site may employ people to server as agents. They will go through the procedures and then report the quality and performance. This is similar to food critics. The problem is that in order to reliably report a system we need a mass of repeatable results, which then can be measured statistically. It will take quite a work force to go through all the governmental procedures, even without repeating them every once in a while. Another disadvantage (which AM for IT systems is facing as well) is that processes in production needs real data and often result in real consequences. For example, you cannot use a fake ID to issue a passport, and when you use a real ID you cannot issue a new passport often enough to report the process.
A better approach would be to reply on customer feedback. Customers’ feedback is a proven tactic (with known disadvantages), for example in recommendations systems such as NetFlix and Amazon and in ‘customer watch’ sites such as Service Report. A person who is about to go through a procedure can register on the Web site, then issue a ticket (a unique id) for the process he’s about to undertake. We need to have a pre defined set of common activities, leaving room for remarks but enabling the users to focus on reporting the time and success of an activity (coupled with location and other meta-data). In a wiki-style, we can have some of the users define these activities and combine them into processes.
Now that the user has a ticket id matching his process, all he has to do is logon to the site every time he completes an activity and report it. The challenge here is to come up with a motivation for people to do so. I think there may be several approaches to achieve that:
A wiki-approach that offers ‘virtue as its own reward’ is a valid one. Its limitation is that we will only have a miniscule percent of the people do it, but that’s OK as we only need enough data to have meaningful statistics.
The personal value of using the Web site will be obvious and will encourage people to participate. One possible model would be to link participation with usage, although that has the risk of limiting the site to a ‘members club’ and not getting the greater benefits which I listed before.
The site can serve as an unofficial channel for people to communicate their governmental experiences. Dedicating time to resolve specific issues (as do ‘customer watch’ sites) and reward efficient offices and persons, the site may be able to gain credibility as an effective measure. The 2 main weaknesses of this approach is that the site will be biased towards the extreme cases and will have difficulty getting the needed masses of data; and in order to be effective, some governmental cooperation must be achieved.
Finally, the site may have money rewards for contributing. This can be financed by contributions, by global organizations (like the UN) budgeting and by charging for using the site (maybe for just some of the site services, e.g. location breakdown of procedures).
Of course, the more rewarding the contribution is, the greater the risk of abuse. That can be mitigated as well, for example validating that data is not submitted at once if it is likely to be gathered over time (to prevent people from just making up cases).
The customer feedback system can be further augmented by having the Web site employees gather objective data, such as the number of clerks at a given office, time limitations set by law, statistics of people waiting in line for a specific application etc. That is somewhat analogues to the hardware monitors that AM for IT systems use – it doesn’t necessarily indicate the quality of the procedure, but it can help to evaluate it.

I have a dream

Naturally there are a lot of details to discuss and questions to answer. Still it seems to me that the possible value of having such a tool at our disposal it so great, that it’s worth the effort, money and the shortcomings. I think this may harness the strengths of the Internet (masses, equity, anonymity, ease of use) to slightly advance our states to be more user oriented – meaning, being closer to what you and me want and expect.

So, do I hear anyone who wants to make the dream a reality?

* thans to Dubi, whose comments on incremental changes and giving feedback to the government encouraged me to post this. Unfortunately you'll have to work your way through an interesting but way too long a discussion to get to them.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Vantage Point

Warning: contains spoilers for the movie ‘Vantage Point’

A couple of days ago I went to the debut of ‘Vantage Point’. Admittedly, I went on account of an interesting promo and the expected presence of Ayelt Zurer (this is the weird way her name is spelled in the credits). I came out after a great thriller, superbly edited and directed, excellently acted (yeah, Ayelt did as well as the rest of the cast) and serving a tight plot. Having the Oscars in mind, I definitely thought of this movie as an Oscar nominee, if not for ‘Best Picture’ then for directing, editing or acting.

Imagine my surprise reading a mediocre (at best) review which complained the movie was “right-winger’s wet dream”. The critic complains the terrorists are presented in a shallow fashion, not having even the “shadiest of motives”. Muslim terrorists are “all dark haired, dark-skinned, and dark-eyed, of course”. He feels its ludicrous that the movie seems to show “a Spanish government apparently incapable of providing even a modicum of security to an intergovernmental summit that, we’re told, is one of the most important of its kind”.

Suspension of disbelief
The movie has its unrealistic plot devices, of course. This is why we need the concept of ‘suspension of disbelief’ when going to the pictures. A summit press conference in what is probably a security staff’s worst nightmare location (the middle of an urban open space), a middle-aged overweight American tourist successfully pursuing trained security guys and a young Spaniard cop (AND speaking Spanish), endless car crashes (just the good guy, bad guys seem to be immune to crashes even while talking on the phone and shooting with both ends while driving) and possibly the biggest unrealistic plot device – a small terrorist group which manage to infiltrate the Spanish police, CNN (labeled ‘GNN’ in the movie) and the President’s security team at the same time.

But this stuff just happens in the movies. You have to accept it in order to enjoy all action movies, and most others – even so-called ‘true stories’ (usually reduced and edited to fit a budget and a movie-length time).

So what about the specific criticism the review draws? Some of it I can credit to the feeling I get that the critic just didn’t understand the movie’s aim – it didn’t span a narrative of years, it just focused on about 30 minutes in ‘realtime’. You don’t get a look into the terrorists’ motives (aside of the mentioned neo-con which sheds a light on the neo-con more than on the terrorists) in the same way you don’t get an overview of the President’s motives. The film maker avoided addressing these, allowing the viewer to interpret the plot using his own knowledge of the world. Similarly we don’t get the full story of the relationships of the terrorists’ one with the other, although there are obvious fractures and tensions in the group – we can only figure some of it by dialogs and events happening during the movie.

The problem with Righteous Liberals
But I think the problem runs deeper. Since I arrived here to California, I heard (mainly on public radio) a lot of opinions which seek to do the same as the reviewer – mock the ‘black and white’ view of the war on terrorism. The ‘shades of grey’ argument is dominant in a lot of discussions. But in the guise of this argument, some truths may be missed.

Ever been to Spain? Morocco? Middle East? How many of the natives are blue-eyed? Blondes? Freckle skinned? So why wouldn’t a terrorist group be consisted of just ‘dark eyed, dark skinned and dark haired’ people (which by the way, are not that look-alike in the movie)? Should terrorist groups practice a ‘diversity in employment’ policy as fashionable in California?
And is the Spanish government so efficient in diverting Islamic terrorist? The horrible Madrid train bombings in 2004 happened well after 9/11, Bali bombings and Istanbul bombings, to name just a few of the major Islamic terrorist attacks of the time. Yet the Spanish government not only failed to prevent the Madrid attacks, it also failed to recognize the attackers until much later (the ruling party at the time blamed the ETA).

Yet the criticism the reviewer makes which seems to me the most problematic is the one about motives.

I am poor\oppressed\religious, so I’m bombing innocent people
Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware that a terrorist doesn’t come out of the blue. I’m all in favor of dealing with the root causes that lead people to be part of a terror act, be it world conflicts, poverty, extremist religion or education. But insisting that the motives of the terrorists are important to understand the possible horrific results of a terrorist act (well portrayed by the movie, I think), or the subtle mechanisms used by terrorists to coerce, deceive and encourage people to be terrorist, that insistence is questionable. It hides the notion of emphasizing with these terrorists – after all, they had motives to do what they did, so I condemned it but I can understand them.

[Side note: I’m not getting into the discussion of what constitutes a terror act and what doesn’t. I’m sure each of us can think of enough examples of non-controversial terror attacks such as the examples I gave before.]

The liberal person who first seeks to understand the motivation (and only then inspect the act), is not only committing moral discrimination (putting the justification of the killers above the innocence of their victims) but is also facing a factual impossibility – almost any group of 10 people in the ‘terrorist community’ has a different motive or agenda. Some are more ‘justifiable’ (‘my whole family was murdered by American missile in Iraq’) and some are less so (‘I hate the symbols of the decadent west, away with McDonald’). Investigating into the motives of each group, discerning them into categories and going about resolving them on the basis of merit, that is ludicrous, as the reviewer puts it.

And Wrong, as Buffy would have said – sometimes you just have to kill the monsters.

Friday, August 31, 2007

And we walked off to look for America

I'm leaving Israel tomorrow and relocating to the US of A. It took a long while to accomplish this goal, something I worked towards at least a year and has been on my mind for several years now. The shipping company has been at our apartment on Sunday and packed everything, to be sent ahead of us to California. On the evening before I had a whim to listen to Simon & Garfunkel, and once all my other CD's were packed and sent, I had a week to listen over and over again to their 1981 Concert in Central Park. Which brings me back to America.

Paul Simon wrote amazing melodies and lyrics, both simple and layered with meanings. I think that one aspect of his songs that always captured my heart, was the way the American way of life and its politics was evident. Most of the songs in their 1981 concert were written by Simon for the duo's albums in the 60's and Simon's early solo career in the 70's. The mood of that troubled time in the USA is very much there.

Kathy I'm lost, I said
For me, 'America' and 'American Tune' both describe a deep feeling of how USA has lost it's sense of purpose. I think many Americans felt, especially after the end of World War II, that their country has a role in human history, that it stood for Good wherever you find it. America saw itself as the ultimate democracy, promoting human rights, equality, justice and the courage to fight for all of these. This self-image was not undermined by realities such as minorities discrimination and bigotry, by the cruelness done by all parties at the war or by the way the corporate world of America was growing during the 50's and 60's. But by the early 70's this image was badly shaken by the cold war, the Vietnam war and the reaction it had in the public, by the 'summer of love' and the rock'n'roll culture and by a growing detachment between government and people. Nixon's escapades were just the tip of the iceberg. Many Americans doubted their country and what it set out to achieve in the world.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Simon's songs echo the 'lost' feeling not only in the loss of purpose, but also in nostalgic form. They celebrate the heroes-of-old, those who acted heroically out of their modest, private nature. The undertone of most of the songs is very personal, seeing the world from the 'common' person point-of-view. The past is somewhat glorified like the black and white of Kodachrome pictures. Simon's music relied on the folk songs of middle America, much like Bob Dylan's early albums. A tinge of religious music, Hispanic influences, a reverence of 50's rock'n'roll. This music intentionally takes the listener back in time to a simpler world (as opposed to the psychedelic music of the 70's), less angry (as opposed to punk or even Rolling Stones), more common. It speaks to everyone, it never shouts.

Life I love you, all is Groovy
What comfort does Simon & Garfunkel offer? In contrast of the drugs-inspired feel of 'Feelin' Groovy', escape is not the answer - one should accept the hardship of life while trying to find an inner compass. The real 'salvation' according to Simon lies in the 'American spirit', such common decency, headstrong sense of what's right and what's wrong, the kind that the pilgrims (supposedly) had. While I'm not partial to the simplistic nature of such a view, I do relate to the feeling that the complexity of modern world is taking away our ability to stick with the Good side. When all shades are grey, it doesn't really matter if you're greyer than most.
America certainly didn't become simpler since 1981, if anything its the other way around. At the same time, the voting percentage is dropping each election, and it seems that along with the vision of its place in the world, USA has lost the kind of virtues that united the American people. This is the country I'm relocating to, and I wonder if things will seem differently once there.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Some thoughts on Technology and Politics

In my past I had been (and may well be again) a student for graduate studies of Political Science. As a bachelor of Computer Sciences, I thought of making my thesis about some kind of interaction between the Political and the Technology. I never got around to do it in the end, having my studies frozen once I ended my military service, but it was something I toyed with in mind many times.

Technology Affects Politics
One possible direction was to look into the way technology affects politics. Does the Internet, for one, change the way politics happens in a given state? Does it promote democracy? Dictatorship? Does it reduce or enhance citizens involvement in their political space?
Another such direction could be to study the impact that technology has on politics or socials of a developing country. For example, does the blooming outsourcing of high-tech services to India creates a new social class in that country? Will it drive the whole country upwards or will it drive the economical and social differences to even greater extreme (in a country already ripped apart by such differences).

Politics Affects Technology
A different case are questions about the way politics affects the development and usage of high-tech. Is the Internet exposure rate higher in democracies than in dictatorships? Socialists than capitalists?
How are governments affecting the nature of high-tech in the state - regulation is sometimes a huge issue, sometimes non-existent. Does government direction of high-tech research and development pays off? Does funding? How many governments do it, and by what means?

Bigger Questions Yet
And one of the most interesting options - can technology create a new method of politics? There are numerous projects abound which change the nature and mechanisms of politics. Consider the 'direct democracy' projects such as Knesset 2 in Israel, which sets an alternative to the legislation process. There is a suggestion for the World Wide Web independence, where one can be a citizen of a virtual micronation, and abide by its rules and policies. Perhaps Kant's vision of global federation can be implemented using technology. Perhaps corporations can leverage technology to an extent making them more powerful than states, making their employees into a kind of citizens in a Corporatocracy.

...But Why Am I Posting?
Simply because I became addicted to the computer game Civilization IV. It does such a good job of following human development, that it makes me thing again about technology and politics, and the question of what new types of politics can be created (like Democracy, Liberalism, Facism, Representaion etc). It also made me reread the excellent chapter about technologies in Jared Diamond's book "Guns, Germs and Steel", becuase it illustrates beautifully how the development of technology is dependent on the amount of food production, the social structure and the number of states you know.

Besides, do I need a reason to post?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

It's a Kibbutz! They don't pay!

The situation at Kibbutz Karmia seems to be a collision of several painful issues for the Israeli society. The facts, as far as I could figure it out, are these:
  • The government sought an arrangement for all Gaza strip settlers evacuated in August 2005 (the Hitknatkut in Hebrew). Some were offered temporary housing at a few Kibbutzes (plural) in the region surrounding Gaza strip (but within Israeli border). Karmia was one of these Kibbutzes.
  • The deal was that the Kibbutz will transform the required fields into a residence area, build infrastructure and set up temporary houses (called Caravillas in Israel, a conjunction of Caravan and Villa, but most like to a shack than anything else). The government will help fund the buildings, and will pay for a two-year rent for every settler house as the fulfillment of the settlers agreed right for housing or rent for the same period.
  • What is the clear benefit for each? The Kibbutz gets to keep the infrastructure and the land that were built for the settlers, and that is a 'big thing' in Israel, where land for building is sparse and most Kibbutzes have hard time transforming agriculture-purposed land into residence-purposed land. The settlers will have temporary housing for a significant period of time while keeping their community intact (more or less), in a suitable environment. The government saved a lot of money which would have been wasted on building temporary housing - like what happens in Nitzanim.
This could have been an good chance for all sides to work together and benefit, but after 2 years, what really happens is that everyone is angry and fighting and mostly blaming the others for their bad situation.

The Government Point of View
Well, those settlers are really a pain in the arse. They should have been moving to their permanent location by now. So it's not the best places they wanted, so what? Don't they realise that we can't satisfy everyone, that we're working on a budget here? And no cooperation from them, no sir, just complaints all the time - fix the damn Caravilla, build shelters against rockets. We end out spending on these 'temp' housing more than it takes to build a proper house!
They want to keep an unrealistic life style - don't they know that there are no rich farmers in Israel? They should take care of themselves; we provide the house, they look for a job, education, transports, all these trifles.
Even so, we could have shut them up for another year or two, if only those greedy Kibbutznikim (people living in a kibbutz) would not have doubled the price of the rent, now that the 2-year term is up. Looking to make some easy money, do they? Well, we're simply not going to pay.
We're simply going to wait them out. They will cave in, you'll see.

The Settlers Point of View
They want us to despair and disappear. The government, that is. They throw us here, in these shambles and call them Caravillas! Villas indeed. We had real villas in Gush Katif (the settlements), with a view to the sea. Now we have an asbestos wall which can burn in 30 seconds when a rocket hits it. Oh yea, and there are rockets. Sure, we had these before but in our home we had a reinforced roof which could stand most of the rockets the Hamas shoot.
And do they offer anything reasonable in exchange? No! Just lousy apartments in Ashkelon, or somewhere deep in the desert, where we can never be farmers again. Never! We should get the same life style as we had before.
The Kibbutz are showing they real nature by now. We know they hate us - they were supporting the bloody Hitnatkut all along, they are peace mongering left wing communists. Don't they see how the mere fact we were sitting in Gaza strip protected them? That all of these rockets weren't coming before we were evacuated?
And don't they know how badly the government mistreat us? If we could have hoped to pay the rent by ourselves and then get some return, we would have, but there is no chance of that with this government. So we don't really have a choice, and what the Kibbutz does? They cut us off - turn off the electricity! What's next - our water? Will they physically throw us out of our houses? Again??

The Kibbutz Point of View
Boy, did it turn sour. We tried to be good neighbours, good citizens. We welcomed these groups of people who we fought against all these years. We turned our fields into sewers and wires. Sure, there was some profit in it, we get to have a residential land where we can later sell houses or rent them - but let's face it, who's gonna come live here, under the shadow of rockets? If we get to cover our expenses we'll be lucky...
They really ought to have been on their way by now. The government promised we can use the land after the 2 years. If we have to keep up, we want fair price. Did they expect we will keep these low rents the government forced on us in the initial agreement? Now it's time to value the housing at their market price, like good Capitalists do. If the government doesn't like it, they can go ahead and find the alternatives - isn't that a free market?
And these settlers - they like complaining. Shielding all the houses? We don't get such protection. This was always the case - the government ignores us. These settlers got used to the good living, near the master's table, and now they're shocked how the rest of us get along through life in Israel. We will make it all the clearer for them when we turn off the water supply...

You really expect one? This is Israel of the 21st century. Bad Karma all around.

The talkbacks at the popular news site take the opportunity to slander everyone in this story, for things which has little baring on the subject, like how beautiful were the houses of the settlements, or attacking the Kibbutz for stealing public money through the Kibbutzim Agreements of the 90's. It's amazing how old wounds and hatreds find their way into every discussion, sometimes not even disguised in new form.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Harry Potter and the Last Page

Spoiler warning: this post includes spoilers for all Harry Potter books.

That's it.
I'm done.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is well behind me, thus completing the chronicles of Harry Potter and friends.
Time to look back and sum it up.

I've got to admit it's getting better, getting better all the time

My first impression of Harry Potter was the 2nd book. I read the first later on, but I've started with the second. And... it didn't make much of an impression, mainly because the writing was, well, immature. The language was rudimentary and the wizarding world inventions were half trivial, half a poor imitation of the 'real' world. The plot had some merit though, enough to keep me going through the quite long book. The films made me even more interested, and I read on.
But it got better. I think the first time I felt there was something real there was the 'The Goblet of Fire'. Harry started to understand that the world was more complicated than Quidditch, Dumbledore was no longer the all powerful master of everything, the metaphors for adolescence became more clear and the final scenes made it clear that not everything will be well within Rowling's world.
That trend kept on through the rest of the series. Harry became as annoying, arguing, self-obsessed and stubborn as most of the youths are. His friends had their own devils to conquer. Character flows which were sketched in early plots were now evolving into 'round' characters. The relationships between families, friends, enemies were better portrayed. Authority was questioned, sometimes abused.

The path to Evil (with a capital E)

But the first time Rowling really impressed me was well into 'The Half Blood Prince'. I mean the Horcrux idea. A physical metaphor of the trauma a murder does to the soul. A fine description how evil is reached gradually, on a path where the red line is pushed ever further. It does not (necessarily) damage skill or power, but soul as a guiding power, moral compass and the thing which makes us compassionate towards others - that soul has to be mutilated. And the more Voldemort maims his soul, the worse are the things he finds himself able to do.
Horcrux combined in 'The Half Blood Prince' with Dumbledore's insistence that Harry understands how Voldemort came to be, and not just tell him 'there are Horcruxes, go fetch'. Rowling asserts that Evil can be understood and must be understood in order to face it.
The Horcrux plot also built Voldemort as a 'round' character, with internal logic, emotions and needs - not just Evil for Evil's sake. This notion is somewhat lessened in the last book, as Voldemort is reduced to 'a quest for killing Harry', but still.
Another interesting prespective on Evil is displayed in Snape's story - he has the qualities of Evil, but seemingly 'random' occurrences such as his love towards Lily and that Voldemort decides to kill her family, drive Snape to the 'good' side. Even then he retains his 'bad' traits, mistreat Harry and does quite a few bad things. He also keeps his notions of lesser people(Mudbloods, non-Slytherins), and not as a pretense. But his dubious character is redeemed for his courage. So, one can overcome tendencies to do wrong, even without removing one's personality.

Of other races

From the start Rowling had prompted messages about equal rights and 'do to others what you would have them do to you'. At times it was done bluntly, especially in the first 3 books. But overall, Rowling presents many characters that are different than Harry in one aspect or more, and makes sure that being different doesn't automatically means 'should be the same'. The attitude towards House Elves for example - Hermione represents the 'bleeding heart' which force equal rights even against the will of the Elves, while Ron doesn't see any need for Elves rights, thus Harry can show the middle ground. But Elves themselves are not making equal rights easier - most of them don't want it, some are hostile in their approach, even Dobby is ridiculous most of the time and makes the reader wonder if he can be an equal member to Harry's party.
So are other creatures in the Potterverse, like Goblins and Giants. In 'The Deathly Hallows' most of the other races communities are shown to be split between sides and with different reactions to what happens, same as wizards.
The reader is encouraged through the books to see both the difference and the common with others, promoting a kind of 'multi cultural' point of view (but not fully - the creatures simply don't belong to the same political unit).

The hero's journey

Ultimately, Harry Potter is about growing up. It goes from Quidditch, House rivalry, snide remarks on teachers (first and second book, mostly), to proving oneself, building a distinct identity within your peer group while building relationships (third and fourth), dealing with the conflicts between friends, family and authority (fifth, somewhat sixth) and finally assuming a role within society while expressing yourself (sixth, seventh).
It follows the general schema of the Hero's Journey by Campbell, and does so while relying on a wealth of legends, stories, books and films of western culture.

I will not put Harry Potter on the same book shelf as Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings', Le Guin's 'Earthsea' or Alexander's 'Prydain'. These books offer better insight into human soul and society, more profound mythology and other-world, and better characters and character development.
It is also too heavy and will likely need a shelf of it's own :-)
But I do think it gained it's place among the classics of growing-up books, and I hope many more kids looking for their way into adulthood will find some hints in Harry Potter's journey.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A shell of a man

Israel Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has lately decided on increasing the compensation for Holocaust survivors by a puny 88 NIS (about 20$) a month. This decision was introduced to the government (and public) in a speech saying (my own translation):
'We are fixing a wrong of 60 years which was never resolved... the negligence [of Holocaust survivors] will not be continued. We will take care of it... it's important to make sure the survivors will get these additional compensations so they can live in dignity.'
While the words are just and inspiring, the actions are petty and insulting. The amount decided is not enough for the basic medical needs most survivors (now old and crippled by the horrible traumas they suffered) need. It isn't enough even for a daily hot meal, which the poorer of these people are lacking. Olmert's proclamation was rejected and mocked by most commentors.

Sadly, this is not the first time that I find myself nodding and clapping my hands while hearing the Prime Minister, but disgusted and dismayed while seeing the actual actions he take. The obvious example is the war in Lebanon, where his public speech at the Knesset was much to the point, stating the reasons for war and the targets we wish to achieve - which I wholeheartedly agreed with - but Olmert knew at the time he had no intention or possibility to pursue. Another example would be his recent praise of the judicial system, in contrast with his appointment of Daniel Friedman to minister of justice and backing him up in his fight to diminish the Supreme Court.

It seems that Olmert has reached a stage in his political career where he thinks that the appearance (some would say 'the spin') is the only thing that the public notices. He no longer feels it is needed to match his words with actions - say one thing, do the opposite. No one will know.

Empty from within, lacking any moral, political, economical compass, Olmert is left as nothing more than a shell of a man, of the prime minister he could have been.