Sunday, December 15, 2013

Storm Damage

I find personal blogging quite difficult sometimes. It's as if I want to create space between me and a prospective reader. Opinions are OK - they can belong to anyone, but personal comment opens a window to the outside world and it's not surprising if people peer inside sometimes. They might see things.
The last three days have seen the worst snowstorm in Israel in living memory. Even in faraway Cairo, they had snow for the first time in 112 years. The first great, ominous flakes began falling Wednesday night and by Thursday, a pretty if slightly inconvenient blanket decorated the gardens  of Jerusalem and made locomotion difficult. By mid-afternoon Thursday and into Friday, it stopped being funny. A huge dump, in places, more than a metre deep had brought down powerlines and caused the worst arboreal damage since the Jordanian bombardment of 1948, also cut off large areas of population. Tramlines disappeared under a flat, white landscape and an eerie quiet, even more funereal than the usual Shabbat calm, descended. People moved like ghosts, disappearing into swirling mist. The ubiquitous cats were nowhere to be seen. A few Orthodox, satin coats flapping in the wind, starkly reminiscent of flaky black and white images of the Warsaw ghetto, plodded determinedly, their hats protected with plastic elasticated covers, their beards dusted white.
Of all the paradigm shifts this place affords, I found myself confronted with yet one more. Jews do deprivation better than most and can still call up what must surely be a collective memory and a survivalist mentality that is unrivalled elsewhere. It manifests as a Stoicism so crusted with collective disappointment that a few flakes of snow simply causes it to surface. Unlike the plucky grin-and-bear it Cockneys in the Blitz, these people are hard-wired for the possibility of disaster and it takes relatively little to cause it to emerge and the odd stone thrower masquerading as a benign snowballer raises nothing more than a ripple.
Miraculously, there have been relatively few fatalities, four  so far. When the road to Tel Aviv was closed since so many cars had been abandoned on it, a call went out for four-wheel drives to help stranded motorists. This was met with sufficient response so people were ferried out of danger. The mayor put out a call to those having power to host someone for Shabbat who had none - close to 20,000 were left in the cold and dark and some still are.
Closer to home, the school, also my home, is housed in the old English Mission hospital, whose foundation stone was laid in 1895. Most of the original buildings of solid Samarian limestone worn smooth by the passing of time are still functional. It is all the additional workmanship, cheap and jerry-built, which has suffered. A few days ago,  a colleague's roof collapsed over lunch, sending metre squared tiles crashing, mingling with puddles formed by leakages. My own large fanlight fitment looked as if it were in tears as the water trickled ominously around it, pooling in ever-widening circles on the floor, ultimately shorting the main circuit breaker. My TV picture fragmented and was lost as snow accumulated on the satellite dish. A fibre-optic cable in the garden, stretched dangerously by a fallen branch, looked as if an enthusiastically obese tightrope walker forgot to step off it.
Reconstruction is part of the survivalists' genetics here. We shall be up and functioning soon despite the heaviness of the air and the occasional stench of hatred. The patient has had major surgery, but she will not need to convalesce for long.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Other People's Money

One of the American validators visiting us a few days ago asked an obviously scripted question to our staff. She said "Are you satisfied with your remuneration here?"  Silence. She waited. Then someone said "The Holy City has a premium." I won't say who it was.
I've been thinking a little bit about money. Not about having enough personally, but the whole mechanism of charitable giving, who gives, why do they give and, I suppose, how much.
My TV package has quite an eclectic mix of different channels, including the '700 Club', Pat Robertson's live show in which guest spots and prayer requests are interspersed with encouraging messages to the naive, the hopeful, the credulous and the desperate to become a member of the Club and hand over wads of cash.
I'm somewhat ashamed to have to admit to never having been tempted by such indulgences - the thought of giving to organisations where I can't really see where the money goes must surely indicate a serious lack of trust on the one hand and a grudging, almost miserly lack of belief in the 'windows of heaven' promise on the other. 
After the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, money was raised and instead of pouring it into some hastily-arranged communal pot, it was decided that it would be more efficient to hire a lorry ourselves, fill it with locally sourced materials and deliver it personally to the disaster site rather than go through channels where the probability of it being quite simply stolen was alarmingly high.
Much as I'd so love to believe otherwise, people aren't, on the whole, to be trusted with other people's money. Entire states are run, and wars are fought with it. The Al Aqsa mosque has had scaffolding around it for years to give the impression that renovation work is being carried out. It isn't. Nothing has been done for years in spite of faithful and quite large donations. The money has just disappeared. Similarly, what, I ask myself, has happened to all that US aid endlessly poured into Gaza? It isn't being used to build schools and hospitals, that's for sure. I wonder whose Swiss bank accounts are being quietly fattened, children educated privately in Europe and secluded properties acquired in out-of-the way places where the rich gather. 
John Kerry wants to give four billion American dollars to reinvigorate the West Bank, which as a charitable gesture is unparalleled in its generosity - I do hope the American people are in agreement - it is their money, after all, but I can't help but wonder how many cents on the dollar will the alleged recipients really be able to use after all the bribes have been paid. 
The UN has funded Palestinian textbooks calling for jihad and destruction of the State of Israel. Who's  checking, or is it simply that nobody actually cares how the money is spent?
A recent Newsnight broadcast showed a short film in which a BBC reporter accompanied a British "aid convoy", funded, it would seem, by UK Muslim charities and headed to the most dangerous parts of Syria. The Aid for Syria convoy, comprised of half a dozen ambulances, travelled over three thousand miles through Europe and Turkey before finally crossing the border into Syria, purportedly to deliver food, shelter and medical supplies. Accusations that aid convoys are linked to terrorism were not addressed in the film,  although the sponsors had known links with terrorist organisations. One ambulance was stopped by counter-terrorism officers at Dover, under suspicion that its occupants were going to Syria to fight. It was also briefly noted, without explanation, that border police turned away one member of the convoy at the Greek-Turkish border. Perhaps all the medicines, blankets and warm fuzzies so kindly donated just somehow got switched for AK47's and mortar rounds. 
This Syrian-bound fire engine from Bradford bears the name of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, convicted of bomb-making and other terrorism-related activities, who is now serving an 86 year jail sentence in Fort Worth, Texas. The Taliban have attempted to bargain for her release with hostage exchange.
I can't help feeling that all that money raised is being used for quite different purposes than that for which the donors originally gave it. I might just keep mine in my pocket.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Minds Luminous

Jerusalem has a breezy insouciance about it. People seem, well, cleverer than average.  Conversations are vocabulary-rich, the complaining is erudite and sophisticated and people think and act fast. For its size, the school where I teach boasts a dazzling array of academic luminosity, beside which
my own modest achievements flicker shyly. 
The Nobel season is again upon us and it seems to become less surprising than ever to observe that a tiny nation comprising 0.2% of the world's population has once more scooped a handful of the most prestigious academic accolades on the planet.  In chemistry, all three winners were Jewish, in medicine, two out of three. In physics, the prize went jointly to François Englert, and Peter Higgs. Englert is 80, a Holocaust survivor who holds a special professorial chair at the school of physics and astronomy at Tel Aviv University.

Is it a gene? Some think so, but I don't really buy into the genetic dialogue - it would almost be as if God were cheating by giving the chosen people an unfair advantage. I have the rare honour of agreeing with one Nobel laureate, Robert Aumann, (economics, 2005) who suggested :

“Torah study is an intellectual pursuit, and honoring this ultimate value transfers to other pursuits as well..... Jewish homes have overflowing bookshelves.. Throughout the generations we have given great honor to this intellectual pursuit…Torah study makes the nation and its people of the finest and highest quality.”

So, that's it. Reading and studying Scripture. Could it possibly be that simple, and yet so demanding? I get to meet a number of people here whose worldview is circumscribed by a quite linear interpretation of the Scriptures, as if it were somehow sacrilegious or worse, in bad taste, to argue about their meaning. No such scruples for the Jews. They set about dismembering flawed logic and fuzzy reasoning with all the vigour of  scores of generations who argued with God. It might be that it is this that gives them the edge intellectually. It is said that where you have one Jew, you have an opinion. Where there are two, an argument. Three, you have a synagogue. Contending with the Creator of the Universe, it seems,  has the great merit of sharpening the mind.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Nuclear Showers

Watching. Always a favourite pastime. Most migrants or travellers, vagabonds and sojourners are like mermen - or, indeed, mermaids. We’re stranded, often at our own request,  between two worlds, our tongues  and familiars traded in for new identities that are like a pair of shoes bought in the sales that never quite fit, where we want to belong to both worlds, but can’t fit into either no matter how hard we bend and stretch.

As for me, I quite like the duality of identity – the ability to be partly both, sometimes at the same time, to feel that connection and sense of belonging in both worlds, here and there.

We all woke up this morning to a to a new reality. Somehow, while all of us in Israel were sleeping, the US and Iran signed an agreement and where we once belonged in the water, suddenly and inexplicably, the evolutionary jump took place and we all grew legs. Now, the choices shorten. Big Brother over the water isn’t going to pick on the school bully any more on our, or their, behalf. Instead, he’s going to wag his finger and threaten detention which doubtless sends a frisson of fear through the diplomatic ranks in Tehran, sniggering behind their hands. So, here, everybody has to learn to stand up for themselves. Again. 
If the ‘historic mistake’ is indeed nothing more than Machiavellian slipperiness, only time will tell. But, maybe a red line has been crossed and five years down the line we might all get to find out.

Today is sunny, with the possibility of nuclear showers.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Following Orders

I have been busy elsewhere. Writing an astrophysics course has been challenging both to memory and ingenuity and an alarming number of my worked examples seem to be being centred on the impossibly bloated Betelgeuse, a red supergiant which if it replaced the Sun would be half as hot with a radius extending beyond Jupiter. My students have been considering the history of astronomy, Galileo's muttered double blind when he recanted his recantation at his trial, and his famous letter to Johannes Kepler which read:-

"My dear Kepler,
What would you say of the learned here who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope?  What should we make of this? Shall we laugh or shall we cry?"

Galileo had expected the telescope to make good Catholics believers in the Copernican system of a heliocentric universe where the planets obediently rolled around a Sun at its centre. Alas, scholasticism and its accompanying dogma set him at such odds with the Church that he was arrested and put on trial by the Inquisition for heresy. Dressed in the white shirt of the penitent, he was forced to abjure his 'heretical nonsense' in a court of law. Legend has it that sotto voce he said at the end 'yet, it doth move'.

Of course, the Inquisitors were really only 'doing their job'. They believed in the infallibility of their system, just as, presumably, Adolf Eichmann did at his trial since his primary defence was identical to Galileo's inquisitors.  
A simple glance through the telescope of morality and natural justice should have convinced him of the spectacularly heartless evil which he had perpetrated and encouraged vast numbers of others to participate in. But, no. He was just "doing his job". The Shoah writhes ceaselessly here, just under the surface of society, a monster ready once again to bare its teeth. Historian David Cesarani has challenged the widely accepted view that Eichmann was just a faceless, obedient bureaucrat. At the behest of his superior, Adolf Hitler, he was merely carrying out orders. Instead, at his trial, he created a 'deliberately banal façade' in order to deceive his prosecutors. Cesarani would have us believe that he was a man of bestial evil, stained and twisted by an evil system into performing the unthinkable.

I am indebted to Adam Grant who suggests that bad, or evil people opt into bad situations. Eichmann’s Nazi convictions and his unquestioning obedience to orders were part of the same ideological package. Either he actually wanted to kill Jews or he didn’t care if they perished. The Jews, in other words, had no intrinsic claim to life.

Returning to Grant's core proposition, can we argue that if good, or at least, not bad people are put in a bad situation, bad things will happen? If true, this is cold-bloodedly alarming. A Yale, psychologist Stanley Milgram provided some evidence, showing that ordinary men would inflict severe pain on others simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure. When a man failed to learn a set of words, a scientist in a white coat told them to deliver increasingly harmful electric shocks. “It may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by the strings of society,” Milgram lamented.
At Stanford, psychologist Philip Zimbardo randomly assigned students to play the roles of prisoners or prison guards in a realistic prison environment. 
Quite rapidly, basic humanity fell away, and arbitrary cruelty overwhelmed the participants; the 'guards' forced the 'prisoners' to sleep on concrete and took away their clothes. “In only a few days, people became sadistic,” Zimbardo wrote: the “power of a host of situational variables can dominate an individual’s will to resist.”

I couldn't help asking myself 'what kind of person would actually have volunteered for the Stanford experiment?' Had I myself volunteered, for example, would I too abandon core values and basic humanity for some kind of material reward? Or, could I - indeed would I - withstand peer pressure, the security of conformity and follow the dictates of my conscience?  Would I have 'followed orders' as Eichmann contended or, indeed, would I too have condemned Galileo? In truth, I don't know. And, neither do any of us.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Pillar to Post

I haven't climbed a tree since I was about ten, I suppose. The thought of attempting to do so now is, I have to say, not altogether tempting. Particularly a broad-leafed, sturdily mature sycamore which might require a bit of determination to haul one's carcase to a sufficiently favourable vantage point.  All this, of course, is because I sometimes imagine myself to be a kind of professional Zacchaeus. Not in the vertically challenged sense, of course, but in the sense of one who tends these days to keep a dignified distance from hullabaloo and crowdly hilarity. Which, I suppose, brings me nicely to what I want to say. If the Son of God had shouted up at me, peeping down like a wood-nymph, and invited himself round for a spot of lunch, I think my first response might have been to direct Him to the nearest Marriott where He might find adequate and nutritious refreshment.

Because He certainly would not have found it chez moi at the moment.

Let me explain. A fortnight ago, I fetched up on the shores of the Land like a somewhat bedraggled Crusader with considerable baggage excess and was directed to present myself at a Hostel. I am not altogether familiar with such establishments but at close to one in the morning, I'd've shared a stable with a cow. Upon entering the premises, I looked around. There seemed to be an abundance of young persons, clearly intent on festivity, but - no bellhop, sadly. I checked in. My room was on the third floor and it appeared that one was expected to drag whatever one was burdened with oneself. I looked around my room, rather hoping for access to room service and cable TV, but both were conspicuous by their absence. The word 'hostel', then, appeared to evoke a passing resemblance to 'hotel', minus the 's', for service. English hostelries are characterised by merry laughter, horse-brasses over the bar and tweedy locals drinking pints of warm, foaming ale from pewter tankards, served by buxom young women, thus I had clearly been misled. Instead, there was an empty glass on the first floor bar with a paper label on it saying 'Jesus would have tipped'.
At this point, I should make it clear that the mournful little blue donkey, my alter ego, was completely vindicated by his new surroundings and it took him a day or two to adjust. Just as I began to feel, if not exactly at home, a bit less like a refugee, I was tossed out on my ear because the place was full and I had to find alternative accommodation while my new apartment which had been closely negotiated over a period of several days was being 'finished off'.
Some days passed. I received a call informing me that all was ready. Leaping into a taxi and tipping the driver extravagantly, I fetched up at my brand spanking new apartment, an exuberant and optimistic tortoise carrying all his worldly goods on his back, expecting to find all the comforts of home packaged tastefully in a sixth floor penthouse. There was a fridge, a single bed, a rickety chair and an alarmingly asymmetric gap under the front door. The elevator didn't work and the electrical wiring was experimental to the point of  presenting a clear and present danger of summary electrocution. A vast expanse of wooden flooring and not much else met my appalled and outraged gaze. In short, the workmen had not so much failed to finish off, they hadn't quite got around to starting. Quite a number of people of varying degrees of seniority came, commiserated and went and after a short period of weeping and gnashing of teeth I am cautiously hopeful that the place might actually be habitable in the foreseeable future. Currently, there is a sort of space where the cooker thingy is supposed to go and inviting people round for dinner would seem not to be on my immediate agenda, consequently if the Son of God had invited himself round, he'd've had to be OK with a cheese sandwich and a glass of water.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Coming Out

This is a strange time. Having followed its politics and listened to its heartbeat with the long stethoscope of distance, it is a different and otherworldly experience to be back. I have a job again, which means I rise regularly to a soothingly melodic alarm, the poetry of the city in my ears like a half-remembered song, resonating gently at the back of my mind.

The city is full. Full of contrast, opinion and the suppressed violence of abundant dialectic, the pulse of which is almost palpable, like an adrenalin-fuelled artery, close to the surface. The haredim move uneasily, weak-eyed with study, hurrying past the goyim, the less religious, the reformed and the seculars, as if to touch would be to contaminate, their slight variations in clothing proclaiming their rabbinical allegiances. Young, bright-eyed, confident people laugh and sometimes dance in the streets to the music of whomever is playing there, drink arak and grapefruit juice in the bars, curly black-haired girls shriek at the tram stops. The Old City, eternally patient, throws open her ancient doors to the world, her marbled streets once rough now worn smooth, polished and slippery with pilgrims' sandals, as they follow crosses down the Via Dolorosa. Queues still form at dusk to enter the tiny sanctuary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, guarded by unsmiling, black-cowled Orthodox monks. Tiny, ragged bookshops, exchange and new, are full of welcome and freedom to browse. I buy rather fewer hard copy books these days - the encroachment of technology allows me to buy whatever I need online and read it on an iPad, slim and luminous. Yet, the smell of old books - everything from leather bound volumes on Jewish thought in Hebrew to dog-eared copies of ten-year-old Stephen King novels reminds me of school libraries and the fustiness of long-abandoned rooms. A book caught my eye. It is not often that one chances upon a masterpiece, peeping shyly out between the poetry and travel sections. Not since Brigid Brophy's "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept" have I been so moved.
This is no Tolstoy, great with pages. Thin with hungry prose, "Yosl Rakover Talks To God" begins with this, found inscribed on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, where some Jews remained hidden for the whole of the war.

I believe in the sun, even when it doesn't shine
I believe in love, even when I don't feel it
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

Truly, this is a city of cursed believers, of poets, artists, thinkers and dreamers, pregnant with optimism, rage and fragile hope.

There is no place like it in the world.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Socrates and Shoelaces

I have quite some time to think these days. Thinking is a process that is frequently non-linear, arbitrary and sometimes causeless. I rely on tools, mostly mathematical and sometimes probabilistic which shape the next part of the thread. Thinking is exhausting, especially when a degree of conscientiousness is required. It has been suggested, erroneously in my view, that ten thousand hours of practice can turn a novice into an expert, irrespective of innate ability.  Building neural pathways to solve specific problems is not enough. Until we learn and appreciate the value of lateral observation, thinking becomes no more than a mechanistic, hence unrewarding activity, which, dopamine-addicted as we all are, is counter-productive. Great teachers are not those who can manage gigantic classes and convey some information. Great teachers ask individuals, who then deduce partial solutions from which greater understanding comes. It comes as no surprise to learn that tutored students do better by a measurably significant amount than those who sit in large classrooms and are lectured along with a large number of others. It takes intense concentration for individuals to engage appropriately with the material in such a setting with little or no feedback. ‘How am I doing?’ is the perennial question, the answer to which is what every student really wants to know.
For these questions, you need to ask someone else the how-am-I-doing part. There aren’t any right answers, just interesting lines of enquiry. For each of them, you have to ask subsidiary questions, the accuracy of which will determine the quality of your final answer.
First, Fermi estimation. This is the process of coming up with estimates of the correct order of magnitude for various real-world quantities often with little or no hard data. Here are a few examples.
1. How much does a cloud weigh?
2. How many people could fit into the Island of Manhattan?
3. How many piano tuners are there in Chicago? [a classic example- I’ll post the standard solution in a comment – you might like to try to compute the uncertainties in the calculation]
4. If the average temperature of the sea were to rise by a degree, then by how much would thermal expansion cause sea levels to rise?
5. How many molecules from Socrates’s last breath are in the room?

Now for some more difficult ones.
6. How do speed cameras work? How accurate are they likely to be? (The basic technique I’m talking about is taking two photos in quick succession.)
7. Why does a mouse survive a big fall when a human doesn’t? (There are many questions similar to this, such as why elephants have thick legs, ants can carry several times their body weight, etc.)
8. Somebody pours you a cup of coffee but you aren’t yet in a position to drink it. You take milk, and the milk provided is cold. You want your coffee as warm as possible. When should you put in the milk: now, or just before you drink it, or some time in between?
9. You are walking from one end of an airport terminal to the other. The airport has several moving walkways, and you need to stop to tie your shoelace. Assuming you want to get to the other end as quickly as possible, is it better to tie your shoelace while you are on a moving walkway or while you are between walkways?
This question comes from a blog post ofTerence Tao
10. You have a collection of suitcases, boxes and bags of various sizes, shapes and degrees of squashiness. You want to pack them all into the boot of a car and it’s not obvious whether you can. What is the best method to use? If you don’t like the idea of suitcases, try thinking about plastic containers of varying sizes and robustness, some with lids and some without. How can they be fitted into the least and most accessible space?

If these kinds of exercises bewilder you, that's fine. A significant part of our time is spent wondering what to do next. Wondering is what we do best. I sometimes wonder in common with the comedian Mark Russell whether  the rings of Saturn are entirely composed of lost airline luggage.