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.