Saturday, December 31, 2016

Head and shoulders, knees and toes

Every child learns the names of the body parts very early in life, often by song. Later on in life, they learn that these same words for body parts have meanings as verbs. The latter use is generally but not always related to the body part itself.

Starting at the top, to head a project is to run it while to head a ball in European football is to hit with your head, of course. To be scalped is to lose your head, literally, while scalping is privately selling tickets at higher price. Staying in the area, people must face their problems in order to solve them, i.e., deal with them directly. If someone is eyeing you, you are being observed while nosing around involves asking questions. Bad mouthing is making unpleasant references whereas teething is process of babies growing, well, teeth. While cheeky is not a verb, it is definitely not polite.  For that matter, chin-chin refers to the sound of glasses clinking (for a toast) and has nothing to do with the body part. Finally, as long as an argument is limited to jawing, the police will not intervene as it is all talk.

Descending, necking is what teenagers do in the back of the car or on a bench seat, i.e., long kisses, probably because of the various angles the neck takes (Interesting to know whether and how teenage giraffes do it). To shoulder a load is to bear it, as any backpacker knows. It is real fun to rib people, to make fun of them, as long as you know they have a sense of humor, with the other direction significantly less amusing. To arm people is provide them a weapon, something more dangerous than what nature provided them. For getting through crowds, you need to know how to elbow your way through, which involves using that joint aggressively. Handing something over does involve that appendix but not necessarily in a friendly way, even sometimes at gun point. If you are fingered, you should feel identified or insulted, as applicable. Thumbing is hitching for ride, which is signaled in the United States putting out your thump. Finally, couples need to back each other when dealing with children by supporting the other's decision.

On to the southern hemisphere, to be hip (grantedly not a verb) is to be cool and up to date, at least in the language of the a few generations ago. Once upon a time, when you ran out of gas in a remote location, you had to leg it to the next gas station, meaning to walk. Being kneed is very painful because the knee is a very hard joint. If you have to foot the bill, you pay out of your wallet. Getting your dog to heel on command is a basic part of canine training.  Finally, to toe the line (not tow!) is obey the rules and not go over the line.

Some of these examples are clearly prime material for Amelia Bedelia while others are child's play, so to speak.

Monday, December 26, 2016

News blackout

I come from a political family. My parents came from politically active families. At the dinner table, we discussed the Vietnam War and Watergate, not the price of bread. My father at the age of almost 91 still religiously reads two newspapers every day and discusses the articles with my mother.  I myself followed events in the recent US election with close attention and voted in every Israeli election since I have been here.

So, it is with great sadness that I have gradually but almost totally entered a self-imposed news blackout. To explain, I am very upset about policies developments around the world, to put it mildly.  I despise what Putin and Erdogan mean for their countries and the entire world. The elections of Natanyahu and Trump have driven me into despair. Their elections depress me not only because of their policies, which are based on negative visions in my opinion, but also because of the large number of people that share and bought that vision. In short, I am politically depressed.

My reaction, alas, has been to withdraw. I do not want to hear about Trump's appointees or Netanyahu's decisions. I know that they will disturb me very much. Like the old Jew in the Warsaw ghetto that kept on complaining that the new landlords did not want to heat the flat and consciously ignored that the Germans were trying to starve the Jews until they could find a more efficient way to kill them, I choose to ignore (not deny) the current situation. I deep in my heart want to wake up in few years to a better world, where tolerance and peace are the norm, not hatred and violence. Of course, I will do my civic duty and support anybody with those ideals but recognize that this is a waiting time until the tide turns, as it always does eventually.

Of course, my news blackout is not total. I still check the scores of my various teams, who also are not doing very well (Lakers, Bengals, Pirates), but there is hope for next year. I do check the weather report as well as look for any changes in the VAT rate since these items has a direct effect on my life. Yet, I refuse to peer into the bigger picture although I know I will bear its consequences no less. I cannot say that my response is very mature or brave but for now it is all I can do. To destroy Descartes, I don't think so it does not exist.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Teaching then and now

Computers have changed all aspects of life, including in Israel.  It is hard to imagine how people coped without instant, mobile and powerful computing devices.  After finishing a lesson a few days ago, I thought remembered how I used to prepare and teach a lesson when I began my career, some 30 years ago. The comparison with today really brought that message home.

I recall how careful I had to be organizing the materials in those days (for high school).  Photocopying had to be organized a few days in advance.  My teacher's briefcase was very wide and filled with numerous nylon bags, each with its handout, my "kit" if things went wrong as well as for that day's lesson. In a sandwich bag, I kept my chalk, which had almost been replaced by markers but not yet. At the start of the lesson, I checked role and confirmed that each student had brought his/her book or pamphlet (without which they could not participate in the lesson). Any change in the lesson required me to write on the board, preferably legibly, quite a challenge for me since I have the great ability to write illegibly in three alphabets, Latin, Hebrew and Russian. Of course, teaching was always in the framework of the book chosen by the staff. In other words, the material was not always relevant or up-to-date nor were the exercises exactly what I wanted. Bringing auto-visual materials to class was such an administrative hassle that I never did. At the end of the lesson, students handed in their homework handwritten on paper, adding to the paper load In other words, lessons were heavy, teacher centered and very structured.

My lesson this week was quite different. I walked in some five minutes early with a very thin portfolio bag, almost empty, basically containing attendance lists, pens and my glasses (the last change is not positive).  I downloaded the word texts from the Moodle site and turned on the overhead project and setup the YouTube video I wanted to show. I began the lesson by showing the students (college this time) a video on public speaking technique. After a short discussion, I had the students discuss in groups the organization of an article, which they downloaded from that same Moodle site, followed by the writing in pairs of a summary based on that discussion in class, of course in Word. I reminded them to use spell-check before sending it to my email and told them that I would return their graded summary by email with all editing clearly marked in track changes. One of the students had a question about sentence syntax. I opened up a blank Word document and wrote several versions to help explain my point.  My feeling was that we, or at least I, had had a stressless lesson.

It should be noted that the changes are truly fine and dandy as long as the computer and Internet work properly. If not, we are back to good old days, without the chalk of course. Still, to paraphrase, teaching sure ain't what it used to be.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ode to Hamin

Some regions have four distinct seasons.  Spring and fall are sufficient distinct and long to have an identity of their own.  Alas, the Middle East has only two seasons with vague transitions between them, both almost identical in terms of temperature and far too short to merit more than a "feeling" of change. So, when winter finally arrives, there is a celebration of change after endless months of sun and hot weather.  Unfortunately, this year it arrived one week too late in Israel. The last week in November was marked by high winds, drying everybody's skin, creating shocking amount of static electricity and, the worst, feeding the series of fires, both natural and man-made, that scarred the country.

To everybody's great relief, winter finally arrived on December 1.  Rain, clouds and coolness opened December.  Granted, it was not exactly arctic. Depending on the location, the temperature was in the 10's during the day and above freezing at night. Nor was the rain that steady or strong as in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Still, this is a normal winter, Middle Eastern style. Winter rites could begin.

Winter clothing comes out of the closet. Long lost sweaters and scarves are pulled down and appreciated anew. Boots of all sizes, colors and forms replace the faded sandals and sneakers. The distinctive sound of women's boots can now be heard in every institution. The local version of a winter jacket is now hung prominently in the entrance way.  Those with more sensitive skin or systems already put on their gloves. Winter is definitely here.

Yet, the most salient sign of the new season is the smell of Hamin (or Chulent) this past Friday. In hundreds of thousands of households, religious and non-religious alike, dinner was this traditional Jewish stew. For generations, Jews have prepared this dish, each family and each region in its own manner. This simple dinner brings on multi-sensory connotation, a bit similar to a Thanksgiving turkey to an American or a bouillabaisse to some French.

To those unfamiliar, hamin or chulent, its alternative name, is a slow cooked stew using whatever ingredients are available. On Friday morning, a combination of wheat, potatoes, beans and/or whole eggs are placed in a pot, generally with some meat, such as chicken and beef. After around a half hour on the gas, the pot is put in an oven at round 140 degrees centigrade (284 degrees Fahrenheit), to be served that night or the next day. In many places in the Diaspora, there was a custom for a whole village to use a common oven and not to mark their pot.  This way, poorer families might get luck and get a "rich" meal. If the Sabbath is also a celebration of food, this was a sure-fire method of guaranteeing both happy tongues and stomachs. Believe me, nobody gets up from a Hamin feeling hungry and cold. Also, for the person who has to do the dishes, it is a one-pot meal, making for quick clean up.

So, I, my wife and our two cats (passively in their case) marked the arrival of  winter in a tried and true method,  with a wonderful plate (or two) of hamin.  I can say that after a good dinner, a short walk and a cup of tea, we sat contently the rest of the evening. Now that is winter.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Notty Tendencies

Language and culture influence each other strongly. For example, formal English society tends to be rather formal and evasive. Thus, there is a rather common tendency to understate matters when speaking.  Some of the common techniques involve not, un, in, double negatives, a bit and its modern cousin, challenged.

Being direct  would create an uncomfortable amount of tension.  So, one solution is using the opposite word preceded by the word not. It is clear that the phase it is not a good time means you should get out of here. Likewise, if something is not a good idea, it is rather stupid in fact.  For that matter, if someone not looking her/her best looks awful really.  You are simply not allowed, that is to say forbidden, to say exactly what you want.

We cannot forget that confusing preposition in when it means not and not in. (Now that is an unclear sentence.) An inconsiderate remarking is rude while an inopportune time stinks. For that matter, inappropriate behavior means that you are acting like an ass while if someone says you are just impossible, it does not mean that you cannot exist but instead he doesn't know what to do with you.

Un can be just as indirect. An action that is unthinkable, truly horrid, is quite feasible in thought but completely unsocial and unacceptable, i.e., rude. For that matter, crude unsavory thoughts about an attractive female in the office would be, alas, unbecoming, actually quite wrong, meaning you can get fired for sexual harassment, to say the least, if she is unwilling, or if that refuses, to cooperate. In this matter, unassuming has nothing to do with your assessment of the situation and all to do with your uniqueness, meaning completely ordinary.

Of course, a person can double down the negative, creating complete downsizing.  If the gift is not inexpensive, it cost a pretty penny. People are quite aware of a problem that is not unknown.  A woman who is not bad looking is pretty.

For understatement, sometimes a bit means a lot, so to speak. If the weather is a bit chilly, most adults are wearing a warm sweater. If the date is a bit overweight, she's better have a good personality. If you receive a text message from a friend saying that s/he will be a bit late, you have plenty of time to check Face book. People with limited budgets should stay away from restaurants that are a bit expensive.

Finally, in our increasingly politically correct words, people don't have problems. They are challenged. Dumb people are intellectually challenged while short people are vertically challenged. A klutz is physically-challenged. I myself am highly follicly challenged, almost bald you might say.

If all this sounds a bit Orwellian, from 1984, I would agree. We all need to be more aware of our language and say what we mean more often. In other words, be naughty, not notty!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Everything you ever wanted to know about translation but were afraid to ask.

When I tell people that I am a translator, I sometimes get a quizzical look, followed by questions that indicate just how "hidden" the profession is despite its omnipresent impact on the Internet and media, among other.  So, as a public service so to say, I will answer a few common questions that people think about and even sometimes ask me.

"You mean like translating books and literature?"
There are some translators that do translate literature. I admire them very much but it takes a lot of time and skill, generally for not too much money.  I translate contracts, business articles, official documents and wills, to name a few.  My wife translates medical material. Most translators have a technical specialty. That is where the demand and money is.

"You can make a living off that?"
Yes, you can make a nice living off that or it is an ideal second income, whatever is more practical.  In fact, many of us have the actual problem of finding time to enjoy other things as it tends to be a bit of a time-consuming job. As the world becomes smaller, demand will continue to grow.

"But isn't it boring?"
Not at all.  Every document has a story. The details of a will or divorce agreement raise my curiosity to know the reason for their existence.  Even simple certificates have strange coincidences, such a person being born and dying on the same day of the year or their last name. Given a choice, translators veer towards material they find interesting and away from that they find boring. The Hebrew expression says "you can't argue about taste and smell." Add interest to that list. Besides,

"Why don't people just use Google Translate?"
In some languages, machine translation is quite effective for getting the gist of an email or Internet article.  I occasionally work with an Austrian project manager who, for some reason, doesn't write in English.  I run her emails through Google Translate and get what I need.  However, try that with technical material or the more exotic languages.  The results range from non-sensical to comic. An example is "viande de terre" for ground beef (from a real Canadian site).  In any case, for a marketing, legal, scientific or medical document to name just a few, Google translate is unacceptable.

"I studied Spanish in high school and college. Could I do translate?"
It is possible. Clearly, a translator has to be familiar with the source language.  However, that is just one element.  Other requirements include mastery of the written aspect of the native language, thorough knowledge of a field, such as engineering or business, and the love of a beautiful sentence.  Words have to be important in their own right. So, as many translators discovered, they never had any idea how much they enjoyed and were good at the profession.

To paraphrase my favorite magazine, Le Canard Enchainé, this has been a fictional but probable interview of a translator. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Animal verbs

Animals are basic part of human existence and vocabulary.  Even in our modern era, small children immediately learn words to distinguish animals from people.  So, it is no wonder that many animals have lent their name to a behavior, albeit without their permission.

The farmyard is the dream place for behaviorists.  They can see horses horse around, running and mock fighting as well as pigs pig out, eating all they can. If those horses get lazy, dogs will dog them while hounds will hound them to get them moving again. Not all is fun and games. The goat goats you while the ram rams you for no reason at all, not to mention the goose goosing you, which can give you quite a jump. It is not all that wonderful for the animals, to tell the truth.  The cows feel cowed by just about everything despite their large size while chickens chicken out from any confrontation from a non-fowl, maybe for a good reason. All this action is at the doorstep of farmer.

Not that is much quieter in the wild. The weasel try to weasel his way into anywhere there is food, using his intelligence. The hawk hawks all the best food for himself, often being the apex bird of prey. The wolf wolves down its food since it has to share it with its group. A buffalo can buffalo its way into any field. By contrast, a fox has to outfox its prey or dies. A duck ducks when it hears a rifle shot, as it should. On a more relaxed level, monkeys monkey around when they are not looking for food, as when an ape apes a behavior, imitating it. Those deer are just as active. Bucks buck the system and try to steal away the does while fawns fawn to those same does to ensure that they receive milk and protection. Parrots parrot the behavior of other animals to gain an advantage.  We won't even talk about what the bears bear.

Don't underestimate the insect kingdom.  As anybody who has ever tried to take a nap during the day, flies fly, making it sometimes hard to kill them. Worms can generally worm themselves into anywhere, including our skin. Leaches, both the insect and people versions, leech our energy and health. These critters are not friendly.

So, the next time you are slothful, are tired of the bull or even in a foul or catty mood, look outside in the yard or at a nature documentary.  You will realize that, as they say in that awful British commercial for a credit company, you are not alone. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Musical Feast

If it takes extraordinary intelligence to be a comedian, then to create musical comedy also requires extraordinary musical skill and knowledge. Since the era of recorded music (and probably before it), America has been blessed with some amazing musical comedians. They have enriched our lives, at least those that understand the humor. For those unfamiliar and even those who have heard them, the following is a brief list of great musical funny "maestros," mentioning at least one of their works to help you get properly introduced.
Old movie fans should be familiar with Spike Jones and the City Slickers, a wacky group of musicians who used anything but the original instruments to present their version of classical works, including cow bells and whistles. Their version of the opera Carmen has both opened and closed the world of opera to me.  After listening to it, besides crying from laughing, I was curious to hear the real version but unfortunately found it far less entertaining the Spike Jones version.  Here is the link:

From a similar time, Harpo Marx played the harp at least once on each Marx Brother movie.  Actually, he never really learned how to play properly until after he retired but who knew that besides professional harpists? His humor is expressed not so much in the music but in his interaction with the harp and his surroundings.  It has to be seen to be appreciated:

Victor Borge is a bridge to the modern era.  A virtuoso pianist, he didn't take himself too serious, preferring to "ham it up" in front of audiences. This lack of seriousness, I believe, opened up the world of classical music to millions in addition to getting them to laugh, always a good deed. If you have any doubt about his talent, get together with another pianist and try doing this at home:

The 1960's turned all values upside down, not always for the better, including musical ones. One Las Vegas performer was Liberace.  Like Victor Borge, he preferred not be a boring classical musician.  His style was much more flamboyant but as Marilyn Monroe, would say, some like it hot. He plays the music straight but his taste in clothes, or lack thereof, make it impossible to take him serious, exactly as he intended.  See for yourself:

Nobody took on the music establishment more than Prof. Schickele, the infamous musicology that brought us P.D.Q. Bach, the lost son of the famous Bach. He applied "tongue in cheek" professional musicology, creating a hilarious synergy of classic and modern.  My two favorites are his baseball commentary to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which actually makes some good points, (, and, in a different vein, his modern version of a round:

The Canadian Brass Ensemble is an amazing group of fine musicians that entertain their audience with both well played music and comedy. They respect the genre but add humor, often through actions, a bit like Harpo Marx.  My favorite is their tribute to ballet music, whose humor is based on the fact they supposedly have never seen a ballet since their back is always to the stage.  Enjoy:

Finally, growing up in the sixties and seventies, Tom Lehrer was a part of my life.  His ringing political commentary is still sadly relevant today.  Listen to Who's Next and National Brotherhood Week and try to find something that has changed besides the names (for your convenience: and However, he was also a tremendous musician in his own right.  His versions of Clementine and a tango will change your view of these classics.  Listen and appreciate: and  They have stood the test of time since they still make me laugh.

Serious music and comedy are not mutually exclusive but require genius of a special kind. These comic musicians, regardless of their or your age, cannot help bring a smile.

P.S. I have excluded rock musicians that were less than serious, such as Tom Waits I rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy, because I am not familiar with them.  I will leave that group for someone else. As they say in boring theses: "Further research should examine the use of humor in modern rock music in the period 1970-2017."

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Degrees of discomfort – Tests of tolerance

I define myself as a liberal, tolerant person and a secular Jew.  I did not grow up in a religious family or in Israel. Yet, having lived in Israel for more than 26 years, I have become acquainted with many religious people, especially my wife's family, who accept me completely. Living in the Galilee, I teach as well as work and interact with many local Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, and have visited many Druze houses.  So, the terms "religious Jew" and "Arab" represent real people to me.

Recently, I experienced two "challenging" situation in terms of my self-definition as a liberal. Several weeks ago, on the train from Ben Gurion Airport to Acco after a long flight from California, a group of five Arab college students entered the train, filled with enthusiasm and energy. After 20 plus hours, my wife and I wanted some peace and quiet but did not get any. The students talked loudly, told jokes and made comments about a series of videos on their phones, all in Arabic.  We could not conveniently go to another carriage as our luggage was on the rack there. To clarify, they were not behaving badly but instead boisterously. After being asked to lower the volume a bit, they tried but were simply unable.
During the hour we shared that carriage, I considered the reasons for my annoyance. Was it the level of noise on my already frayed nerves? Was it the sheer energy level when I wanted serenity?  Was it the fact that they were loudly speaking Arabic? In other words, if a similar group of Hebrew speaking students had entered, would I have been equally disturbed? After careful thought, I had to admit that the third issue was also a factor. It somehow bothered that they were so loud in a foreign language and Arabic at that.  I then considered the issue and realized that, while it may annoy me at this moment, the Arabic language was a matter of their cultural identification and, moreover, national pride for Israel, which allows its minorities to feel sufficiently comfortable to express themselves openly in their own language, even in public.

Last week, I visited a religious family in mourning.  The deceased having left behind many siblings and children as well as a husband, the apartment was packed with people with almost everybody wearing a kippa or head covering. I did my best to blend in and looked for a conversation to participate in or at least listen with interest. In fact, everybody, young and old, was talking about the manner of the upcoming Yom Kippur prayers in all their aspects. More strikingly, they were discussing such matters with great joy and interest.  This attitude ignited the question that generally pops up in my mind when seeing religious conversations: why do you waste so much time and energy on such irrelevant matters? Of course, the question presupposes that my secular way of thinking is correct as compared to the "brainwashing" religious people get. In all probability, they considered my lack of interest in Torah equally errant. In such cases, I remind myself that the world is made of many faiths, no matter how ridiculous I may consider them.

The cultural gap between me as a Jewish atheist and them is as least as great as I felt on the train. The latter is easier to bridge as I consciously recognize the legitimacy of cultural self-expression.  On the other hand, my inability to grasp the faith base of religious people makes it harder to maintain my tolerance. Marx wrote that religion is the opium of the people.  Accepting the right of people to take opium creates much discomfort.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Democratic uncertainty

Jean-François Revel in his book The Totalitarian Temptation (1977) wrote in regards to democracy (and love) that there is no accepted definition but instead clear symptoms.  In other words, the proof that a country is a true democracy is whether it is a free press, safe environment for opposition, protection of minorities and exchange of leaders, to name a few. Of course, there are intermediate states between ultimate democracy and absolute dictatorship but an analysis of all the political conditions quickly demonstrates which citizens actually have rights.

Pseudo democracies have always existed.  The Soviet Union, Mexico and India had regular elections while Hitler was an elected leader, albeit only once. Such countries generally have constitutions and legal codes that formally but not in practice allow protest and opposition.  Modern examples of fake democracies include Turkey and Russia. In these countries, the same leader has ruled for more than a decade, as president or prime minister, with any effective opposition leader being arrested or, as Putin has done, assassinated. The press is effectively government run.  Of course, the established leaders are quite popular. In fact, one sure sign of a non-democracy is when the ruling party received more than 80% of the vote.

Worldwide, today's democratic politics are quite volatile. Many countries conduct elections in an environment of non-tolerance or even hate between the competing parties.  While the tone of the discussions in these countries can be disconcerting, especially in terms of racism, the mere existence of a public debate on key issues and its presence on all forms of media without fear of a legal or extralegal penalty provides hope for the future. The United States and Europe will emerge stronger as the candidates and the public discuss and determine their place in the world and the role of immigrants in their societies. In Israel, the call for increased control of the press by the ruling party is worrying but the court system and major parties still promote freedom of speech. India and Mexico, formerly fiefdoms of their ruling parties, frequently replace ineffective governments to the benefit of their countries. Brazil even impeached its president, an unlikely event a few decades ago.

According to Heisenberg's theory of uncertainty, an observer can have total knowledge of location or direction or partial knowledge of both but not complete knowledge of both. In other words, the closer you look at the trees, the harder it is judge the forest and vise versa. As a foreign observer watching the political processes occurring worldwide, I appreciate democracy and relish the viewing of them even if the actual content of the public debate is disturbing or insulting. In such societies, controversial issues are resolved for the public good, not for the benefit of a specific party or leader. As Revel said, in practice, with all of its imperfections, democracy is much better for people than totalitarianism.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Triangular imbalance

The players in higher education include three groups: students, administration and teachers. The power held by each group is based on tradition but is also dynamic. In Israel and, I suspect, other countries as well, a major shift has occurred in these power politics. Specifically, Israeli college students, through the student unions, have begun to actively apply their financial and numerical power to change academics.

In traditional universities worldwide, the professors once ruled the roost. Students had little if no say in their own education. It is said that the disturbances of 1968 in France were said to have ignited by the simple gaul, pun intended, of a Sorbonne student, who dared to pose a question to a professor. I experienced this attitude more recently, in 2002, when I innocently challenged the grade given by the learned professors at Leicester University on my MBA thesis.  They did not apparently recognize my right to have a grade justified.  Of course, the administration has almost always supported the staff in any dispute, viewing the teachers as the foundation stone of the institute's reputation.

However, the nature of academics as well as society has radically changed. More and more institutitions of higher education have opened in all countries, whatever their denomination, to meet the growing demand for degrees if not actual education. At the same time, public funding of higher education has failed to keep up or even declined. Thus, most colleges find themselves seeking funds.  The voiceless students have now become the client, the actual term applied by the administration. In other words, without proper student enrollment, the learned professors will have no position. Thus, in Israel today, students have an ever increasing vote in curriculum matters.

An example of this trend is the current controversy regarding the teaching of English in Israeli universities.  Hebrew being a limited in its international use, English is universally understood as the key for success.  However, the question of who is going to pay for the English courses has always been a sticky issue. It has been standard practice to require students to pay extra for lower level English courses since they are supposedly remedial and only for those freshmen whose English is not up to par. The sheer number of students taking such remedial courses suggests a serious gap between the required level and actual level.  Enter politics, in the person of a populist Minister of Education. One way to gain favor is to make life easier and less expensive for young voters. Six months ago, he arranged a way that the students could take a free and unaudited English course on line but would have to take the English test for that course level at the university where they study.  This option clearly helps saves the students money and time.  However, based on the results of the tests at Israeli institutes of higher learning, after the first such semester, it doesn't seem very effective in teaching English, even if the goal is strictly limited to reading comprehension.  Nationwide, around 50% of the Israeli students that took the online course failed their college English tests. Tension between students and staff has increased, needless to say.

Clearly, a balanced relationship is needed. Students have rights, including the right to 
education that opens horizons and serves them in their lives. They also have the right to be taught by lecturers that know to teach and to be graded fairly.  On the other hand, lecturers are not mere servants that satisfy basic students' immediate desires, those being high grades with minimum work. They have attained some perspective on longer term needs.  As a current lecturer and a former student, I believe in balance and mutual respect in student-teacher relations. My experience is that most students and lecturers are reasonable people and share a vision. To mangle Lincoln's phrase from the Gettysburg Address, education so divided cannot long survive.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Horsing around

Horses were once had a vital role in human life, used as a primary means of transportation and the main source of power in agriculture.  Although they have lost those roles, their legacy remains in the English language.

We still refer to the purpose of many parts of the horse and its equipment. If a person is champing at the bit, s/he is eager to get started or involved, the bit being the part in the horse's mouth. For that matter, unbridled enthusiasm is not tempered by caution since a bridle limits a horse's movement.  In that case, someone has to rein in, i.e. pull back or restrict the freedom of movement.  Sometimes, the opposite is necessary, meaning you to have to spur someone on, referring to the sharp point at the end of a cowboy boot used to get the horse to run faster.  To help focus, horses and athletes need blinders to avoid being distracted.  Of course, it is hard to be calm if you are saddled with worries or debts. Many people almost succeed but it has no meaning since almost doesn't count unless in horseshoes and hand grenades, the former being a game in which you try to throw a horse as close as possible to a stick, a bit like les boules in France. If you have to hoof it, you got to walk, which has nothing to do with hoof in mouth disease, not thinking before speaking and making embarrassing comments.

Even in general, the horse maintains its presence in language. Engines are measured by horsepower, technically 550 foot-pounds per second. If someone tells you to hold your horses, you need to stop immediately, with an image of an out-of-control four horse carriage popping up.  Before an eagerly awaited date, many guys are hot to trot, all sexually excited.  Of course, an employee can be a workhorse, strong and dependable, or even a thoroughbred, carrying all the right genes to be a top manger.  Still, they may need a hand up, some help, derived from assistance to getting up on a horse.  In the end, all employees are put out to pasture and retired, which is not always a bad thing. After all, you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, meaning you don't ask questions about gifts.   That assumes that you have any horse sense, which is basic wisdom so common in horses and rare in humans.

To end on a proper note, to quote Cuthbert Soup, You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him participate in synchronized diving.” 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

How do you think?

The sign of life in human beings, aside from breathing of course, is expressing an opinion.  From the moment of birth to the last breath, people have something to say, generally with words.  Semantically, the choice of words reflects the basis and strength of our positions.

Some judgments are more intuition or belief- based.  If someone senses or feels that another person is lying, the choice of verbs hints a lack of certainty and a hard-to-prove gut feeling.   If people believe that abortion is wrong, it infers a sense of values, based on deep ingrained values not subject to discussion. By contrast, if an individual considers you a fool, it may be possible to change his/her mind despite that belief.

Other statements are primary derived from logic. If you perceive that improvement is possible, you have seen something to persuade you so. Likewise, a person realizes that his/her behavior has to change on the basis of the consequences of not doing so. To understand that you are wrong requires some analysis.  On a less formal basis, many people reckon that it is time to leave based on the behavior of others and group expectations.  To recognize that screaming at a child is not generally useful requires is logical but unemotional but to admit that it only makes  the situation worse requires backtracking, verbal and emotional.  A person that confesses that s/he made an error admits a wrong judgment.

Some opinions are quite strong on whatever basis. If people are convinced that Hillary should be elected or jailed, they are not likely to change their minds. Even more so, if I know that Trump hasn't paid taxes (despite not having seen his tax returns), I won't vote for him. If a fan is confident that the Bengals (or Cowboys) are going to win the Super Bowl this year, nothing anybody else can say is persuasive, at least in the pre-season.  Vegetarians that insist that eating meat is wrong will not have a hamburger for lunch, regardless of the quality of the meat. Finally, angry teenagers that swear that they will never talk to their parents again really mean it at that moment.

 So, if you have an opinion and write what you think, try using a stronger word than think. I believe and even insist that you will sound more persuasive.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Timely advice

There is a major difference between subjective and objective time.  The former is a sense created by cultural norms and personal sensations. The time to go to bed or leave the party is not set in stone. The latter is generally imposed by outside forces. We are told when the movie begins, the plane flies, and TV program starts. Communication issues arise when the two types of time are not in synch. In such a case, if you want people to arrive wedding by the objective deadline, you have to take into account their subjective clock.  This manipulation is a very common throughout the world.

The hosts of social events make certain assumptions about their guests and play with the time. For example, in Israel, if they want to all the guests to arrive by 8:30, they will write on the invitation that the hupa (wedding ceremony) is at 7:00. If they wrote the actual time, many of the guests would arrive at 9:30.  In South Africa, for example, the suggested and actual time would be identical if not very close. Another example is dinner time.  In some South American countries, the meal at a dinner party is very late, almost 11:00, because guests leave quite soon after the meal.  If the host wants a long party, it is necessary to delay the meal. The timing involved in dating is quite complicated. It is advisable to arrive little early to a first date but only for the purpose of checking out the "merchandise."  So, even there, the formal time is not the actual time of arrival.

Family life also has its chronological challenges.  Children have almost no sense of actual time.  Parents spending a day at the park with their children often say that they are leaving in five minutes when they actually mean 15 minutes. If they told the truth, it would take 30 minutes, if not longer.  Children understand the subjective meaning, i.e. quite soon as compared to in a little while, much better than the formal meaning.  A common translation issue between couples is the phrase I am ready before leaving the house.  Most men express this when they are standing by the door with keys in hand, that is ready right now.  Most women say this when they are personally ready and about to start closing the house, that is in a least five minutes.  Time and language have a complicated relation.

There are situations where circumstances require people to be on time, which is quite a challenge even for some adults.  Airlines strongly recommend that you arrive early so as to avoid unpleasant scene.  Tour bus drivers, knowing their customers, take extreme measures to guarantee punctuality.  One driver in Las Vegas informed the passengers of the exact cost of a taxi from Hoover Dam to Los Vegas.  He let everybody know when he was leaving the bus stop at the former.  The amount was so prohibitive that nobody was late.  As a final example, I had a friend in Portland, OR, Bob, who had zero sense of time but a good sense of humor. On one occasion, we needed him to show up on time.  Since he lived rather close, we told him to drop whatever he was doing some twenty minutes before the agreed time and driver over immediately.  He actually showed up on time but with a towel over his midsection and said "I was taking a shower."  We got to the event on time.

The purpose of communication is to be understood. A statement is a lie or exaggeration only if the receiver takes it literally.  Such is the case with time.  As long as everybody understands each other, all is fair in setting the time.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The meaning of it all

I recently participated in an international conference at the University of Haifa entitled Legal Language and Discourse 6.  For four days, experts in wide variety of fields with a wider variety of perspectives discussed a seemingly simply issue: what does a word mean?  The answers to that question are far from academic and have had a major impact on people’s lives.

For example, Prof. Lawrence Solan brought up the tricky issues of whether the qualifier using a weapon in a drug offense includes exchanging drugs for arms and carrying a weapon includes it being in a car. The answer is yes for both cases according to the Supreme Court. In a Jewish context, there were opposing view between Prof. Berachayahu Lifschitz and Mr. Moshe Ovedia whether Jewish rules of life should be based on the words or spirit of the written text of the bible.  In other words, what does the prohibition on spitting on Shabbat have to do with a day of rest?

The conference was enriched by a plethora of Chinese speakers providing their own point of view on both Western and Chinese law. It was intriguing to Chinese judges construe the meaning of the facts. According to Professor Le Cheng, the issue of pornography is reflected by how the judge chooses to describe the photograph of an apparently naked body artist. Prof. Zhang Luping discussed the term hearsay, noting that the statement “she said that she was the Pope” is admissible in reference to the mental state of the speaker.

Many lecturers discussed the role of the English language in the law. Of special interest was the speech of Prof. Halina Sierocka. She presented the challenges and success of the legal English program at the University of Bialystok. Given the importance of English as a lingua franca in international law, she highlighted the uneven but significant progress in Poland in terms of mastering legal English as well as the issue of bilingual legal studies. On the same note, Prof. Powell, who teaches law in several countries in Asia, provided a detailed survey of legal English in Asia, noting the practical implications of using English in each country. A group of Polish speakers, participants in an ongoing project to create a comprehensive international data base of law language, outlined the initial steps already taken in this direction.

One of the strangest themes, albeit unintentional, was that a word sometimes means, as Alice says, exactly what I intend it to mean. According to Prof. Dennis Kurzon, Henry VI interpreted the term malice to mean doing anything he disapproves of. Likewise, as explained by Xin Wang, there is very little domestic violence crime in the People’s Republic of China but there are problems of unacceptable behavior.

I have only mentioned a few of the lectures and apologize to those who I left out. With all this discussion of words and their meaning, I must add that the words exchanged by the participants during the breaks, meals and trips enriched the meaning of international communication, appreciation of cultural diversity and recognition of universality. For that in particular, I wish to thank Prof. Sol Azuelos-Atias for organizing the conference. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Carful Stars

Cars are also a means of transportation, meaning that some people mainly regard them as signs of status.  If anybody is sensitive to status, it is a TV star.  So, it is interesting to look some famous TV couples, i.e. human and vehicle.

My favorite tandems are in the travel/cooking field.  The world’s sexiest (from my point of view) tour guide is France’s Julie Andrieu of Les Carnets de Julie. She speeds around the hills and dales of France in a small red Citroen 304.  Being a two-seater and very low based, it is entirely impractical but so are high heels. Who cares?  It’s the style that counts.  Her male counterpart is Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives fame. He also gets around in a red sports car, a Camaro in his case. Not being female, I cannot say if his vehicle adds anything to his aura but I imagine it works for some people.

Of course, the marriage between stars and cars predates these food shows. Detectives are often identified by their wheels. What would have Miami Vice been without a fancy Ferrari or the more recent CSI Miami without its Lamborghini? On the other side of the lake, Inspector Morse motors around in slightly more understated manner, appropriately for the English, sporting a red Jaguar. On the blue collar side of the road, the famous shlumper Columbo maintained his image with a beaten up greenish Citroen 403. Likewise, the cynical Ironside of San Francisco got around the hilly city in a 1940 Paddy Wagon and always found parking for it, not to mention spare parts.

To update and paraphrase Descartes, in TV at least, I drive therefore I am.  

Friday, July 22, 2016

Irish addition by subtraction?

In continuation of last week’s post on Ireland, I feel obliged to mention what Ireland has few of, for better or worse.   Of course, I could be wrong about any of these points and confused the forest and trees. I am open to any correction.

Ireland has very few cats, pets or wild.  Neither in Dublin nor Galway did we see any cats in the streets or windows.  Apparently, something there, possibly the weather, discourages their procreation.  It certainly is not due to a lack of birds.

For that matter, Ireland lacks pests.  St. Patrick probably did not kick them out, but there are no native Irish snakes.  Furthermore, I didn’t see any cockroaches or mosquitoes either. The largest carnivore is a fox, not exactly a major threat to life. There are badgers but they apparently avoid the city and wreak only their havoc in the countryside. To be fair, midges can be problem at certain times but it is a much localized problem at that.

Curiously, with no connection to the previous paragraph, Ireland has few Israeli visitors. We were there some 12 days and did not meet a single Israeli.  I am not complaining but it was certainly surprising as Israelis are big travelers. I do not know the reason. It may the relatively high price or lack of Jewish roots in the Emerald island, but we could speak Hebrew freely without worry of being understood.

Continuing on the positive note, Irish food portions are respectable but not obscene. With no longer the appetite and capacity to burn calories that I had when I was in my 20’s, I appreciated getting up from Irish meals satisfied but not stuffed.  There was always room for the delicious dessert, which are also tasty but not copious. Less can be better.

While most people think driving on the left (not wrong) size of the road is very frightening, Irish road makers were very Scottish in their craft. The roads are so narrow. To my eye, the country roads are one way. However, somehow they serve two- way traffic, allowing even a bus and car to pass each other without damage.  I often thought of that scene in one of the Harry Potter movies in which the bus changes form in order not to hit a car. Those tight squeezes made me happy not to drive in Ireland. Phrased positively, Irish drivers are amazing.

Regarding subtraction, the politics of Ireland as expressed by the weather reports is quite fascinating. The Irish TV station always mentions the weather in Belfast and northern counties even though they are part of the UK. By the contrast, the BBC, including BBC Northern Ireland, steadfastly ignores the weather in the lower two thirds of the island, somewhat like the missing picture of the embarrassing aunt. By contrast, the Irish I spoke with rarely mentioned the British and their influence on Irish history. They were cryptically (sarcastically?) referred to as our English cousins.  The less said the better.

Finally, Irish (Gaelic) and Hebrew are both resurrected languages, effectively reborn for nationalistic reasons in the last century or so.  While in Israel the vast majority can and do use Hebrew in their daily lives, Irish is not widely spoken, only 16% of the population, mainly in rural areas, despite it being the first official language. My favorite Irish sound was the name of the Irish railroad, Iarnród Éireann. During our trip to and from Galway by train, we heard it at the end of every announcement, to my constant amusement. To an English ear, it sounds like here nor there, which is funny in the context of travel. In any case, I wish the Irish success in creating a true local national language.

To end my two-part Irish post, I heartily recommend a trip there. Come armed with a sense of humor and adventure. Both the country and its people are a bit wild in a positive way.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Irish plenty

My wife and I just returned from a wonderful trip to Ireland.  In the first of two posts, I wish to note those elements that distinguished Ireland, in both senses of that verb.

Ireland has plenty of water. Many countries are blessed (or cursed) with plentiful rain, but few as much as Ireland.  In fact, until a few years ago, water was actually free. The government had to start charging for water use as the pipe system needs to be replaced, so we were told.  Many people resent having to pay for water, even the minimal amount.  I suppose that the employees of the Israeli Electric Company feel the same about having to pay for electricity. It just shows how easy it is to get used to the good life.

Ireland has plenty of new Irish.  While in Israel immigrants are referred by their country of origin, i.e. Ethiopians, Russians, and Albanians, to name a few, the Irish have their new Irish residents, many of which take on citizenship.  Compared to its base population, a large amount has arrived on the Emerald Island to work since Ireland joined the EU.  One the one hand, now not all the Irish look “Irish”, which also can be said in most if not all European countries today.  On other hand, Dublin’s pubs and restaurant would close without its recent arrivals. It is almost impossible to find an Irish waiter or waitress in Dublin. By contrast, in the West, in Galway, most of the servers were actually Irish.

Ireland has plenty of cows and sheep. Due to its low population density and copious rain, healthy grass abounds.  The cows and sheep spend all summer outside eating fresh grass and look wonderfully healthy and happy. Their Middle Eastern cousins would die of envy.  The choice of cattle or sheep was a sure way to judge the quality of the land in any specific place.  We were in many places that reminded me of New Zealand - much more sheep than people.

Ireland has many stone fences.  Of course, it has many stones.  Still, these fences tell a rich history.  The skill of their builders is reflected in the fact that they stand for hundreds of years.  Some are constructed with the rocks placed horizontally, with holes to allow the wind to pass by. Others use vertically placed stones for reasons that are unclear to me.  Some randomly go up hills, built by starving Irish during the Great Famine upon instruction by the landowners to “justify” the meager food given to them. Ireland is truly fenced in.

Ireland has many uncomfortable chairs.  They come on all sizes and shapes.  Many are bar stools of varying heights, without or without back or hand rests.  Others are Louis XIV chairs with beautiful colors but collapsed bottoms. Some are wooden with angles designed to promote chiropractors.  A comfortable chair is hard to fine.

Ireland has many free museums. It is amazing to visit a modern museum and not pay anything for its maintenance.  Even if there is an entry fee, as for the castles, it is not significant. Culture is truly important.

Ireland has many bookstores.  This temple of culture, disappearing in many countries, is thriving in Ireland.  I had simply forgotten how fun it is to stroll through book stores, finding endless books that I want to buy.  Unfortunately for me, I did not have any room for such purchases. So, I painfully limited myself to the purchase of one paperback book for the flight back. 

Ireland has plenty of weather. I had the impression that it changes every five minutes. This moment’s rain or sun had nothing to do with the actual weather in fifteen minutes. I watched with the amusement as the weather forecasters spoke for two minutes, showed maps with winds and pressure settings, and then admitted that the weather was uncertain for tomorrow. Ireland, unlike Israel, has both weather and climate.

Ireland has plenty of women in tights, to paraphrase Mel Brooks. In almost complete disregard for the weather, countless women walk around in short skirts and stockings.  Some of them have the legs for this fashion while others don’t.  Regardless, I hadn’t seen such presentation of legs in a long time.

Finally, Ireland has many nice people. As one of my guides said, God gave us plenty of time. The Irish take it and enjoy life.  The pleasantness goes beyond formal politeness. It is genuine and strongly flavored by a sharp of sense of humor. It is probably the plenty that makes Ireland such a pleasant place to visit.

(Part II of this post will appear in a week or so.)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Out and About in Los Angeles and Israel

Any person that has travelled around the world and drove a car knows that road cultures vary. In other words, when in Rome, drive like a Roman or don’t drive. (I recommend the latter.) The differences arise from the physical road conditions but also the education and temperament of the drivers themselves.

Compare driving in Los Angeles (and most of the west coast of the US) with the pleasure of motoring in Israel. LA, being a metropolis, not a city, requires people to drive.  For most of the population, public transportation is not an effective option for commuting. Therefore, the roads are wide and bi-directional while the highways generally have at least three lanes in each direction.  Given the number of cars in Southern California, the infrastructure is still not sufficient, but at least there is room to maneuver. Excluding the Sunday driver, a rather unpredictable creature, most LA drivers know the roads, avoid last minute decisions, don’t double park and know how to yield. Amazingly, LA drivers are expert in smoothly merging into freeway lanes.  I am not sure whether it is genetics or training but it seems almost unnatural. The fact that Angelinos spend so much time in their vehicles paradoxically causes them to relax, not tense up. They are even willing to wait until the red light to make the left turn when they are in the middle of the intersection, one of the mysteries of LA driving as far as my Israeli-born wife is concerned.  All in all, like good jazz, by staying cool and thinking ahead, driving in LA is not terribly challenging once you get in the flow of it.

Israel, being in the Mediterranean, is another story indeed.  The government has tried to improve the infrastructure but there are far too many two lane roads. The less said about their banking, the better. The most important factors are psychological. Two assumptions seem rather rampant: It is my father’s road since he paid taxes; rules are for other people (or mere suggestions, albeit strong ones). Combine that with the summer heat, patience is not a common virtue here. Most drivers act as if they are alone on the road and do their best to ignore the presence of other motorists. The fact that everybody else is traveling at 100 kph (62 mph) has no impact on the need or desire to travel at 130 kph (86 mph). There are some local variations. I live in the Galilee, surrounded by Arab villages, where driving licenses and seat belts are considered recommended but not required. I know that I am getting close to home when the driver in front of me is going 20 kpm faster or slower than the speed limit, oblivious to the danger s/he is creating. Tel Aviv is a special place. The roads are very crowded while parking is more valuable than gold. The meek need to use public transportation, which is quite convenient and effective, since they will be unable to even leave their parking spot since nobody will let them enter the traffic lane. The approach to driving mirrors the oft used local expression what doesn’t work by force requires twice as much as force. In other words, possession is nine tenths of the law. It helps to have a SUV in that sense since its physical presence is so imposing. On the bright side, it is a good place for people that enjoy adrenalin and cursing.  To make it clear, in Tel Aviv, I use public transportation.  LA driving did not prepare for that challenge.

My wife and I will be soon visiting Ireland for a vacation.  We decided not to rent a car and drive because the culture is so different, i.e. they drive on the left side of the road. (UK patriots, please note that I didn’t use the word wrong.)  I am looking forward to see how the Irish are out and about. I would also like hear about driving culture in other countries.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

What is to be done – the burning (legal) issue of our time*

It is so hard to keep up with fashion and know what is right.  Every attorney knows this.  Once upon a time, the rules were clear. Third parties shall meet their obligations.  The legal writer used the modal “shall” in full confidence that everybody understood the word “shall” to mean to have no choice.

Alas, the world has become more complex.  Experts and governments have cast doubt on that assumption, rendering it difficult to know how diligent counselors are supposed to express themselves.  For example, Kenneth Adams, in his Manual of Style for Contact Drafting, insists on shall for expressing obligation but specifying the use for third parties. He is not fond of must, arguing that it does not create an obligation but instead describes it, adding that its tone gets obnoxious over a long document. The federal register,, disagrees with him and states that must does create an obligation. The ABC rule, invented by a group of Australian, British and Canadian legal writers, had previously suggested that the change to must. Shall seems to be going the way of whither, hither and thither, perfectly wonderful words that were used improperly.

Of course, there are a few will supporters. Technically, “will” refers is predictive in the second and third person but prescriptive in the first person.  This apparent ambiguity renders it inappropriate for stating an obligation.  This lack of clarity is undeniable but its simple sound is pleasant to the ear.

Back to our shall, courts have occasionally ruled that it can imply permission, thus also rendering it ambiguous.  Still, 99% of the population would understand that the sentence John shall pay Mary $500 a month for rent involves an obligation, not a choice.  Since it combines sufficient clarity and a mellow sound, I prefer the American “compromise” of shall.

Still, as I continue to translate contracts, I must admit that I will be subject to bouts of doubt regarding what modal to apply in the sentence of obligation before me.  I hope that I won’t be considered too old fashioned if I continue to use the classic simple shall or even will.

* What is to be done is the name of a romantic novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky in 1886, which inspired many later revolutionaries in Russia for some reason, including Lenin himself, who wrote a similarly titled pamphlet in 1901, adding “the burning issues of our time”, describing his agenda for change, to put it diplomatically.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fledgling Help

Among the values that we absorb from our parents and surroundings, one of the most subtle involves preconceptions of how to raise children. I say preconceptions because most people revise these norms in some way once they themselves become parents. The effect of these assumptions is most obvious in people that immigrated to other countries, i.e. their values are in contrast with those around them.

Israel is filled with people that complain that were raised to be too polite or too open, too loud or too quiet, too punctual or too lax, to name just a few. In other words, their parents’ values made it hard for them to function in the general society. Israel is not unique in that way.

That being said, parents and children sometimes only discover the source of this dissonance on a certain matter very late. One issue of parental assumption is the transition to adulthood. Children reach an age, generally after 18, when they leave the house and go study or work. In other words, even if they are still not financially independent, they are on their own otherwise. Parents choose a variety of attitudes to their released offspring, from remote control of every detail to feigned indifference to their fate and everything in between.
In Israel, most 18 year olds go off to the army and come home on weekends. Parents tend to be deeply involved in their children’s lives, with mother’s doing masses of laundry and cooking every Friday and Saturday, fathers taking their kids to train stations and regular phone communication.  More recently, parents even lobby with the army for better conditions for their children. Interestingly enough, the young soldiers fully accept their parents’ involvement despite that the fact that they are technically adults.

I bring this up as I recently had a tense conversation with my daughter, who left the house and started working at the age of 18 at her insistence. In the year that followed, while I made sure that she had a roof over her head and food in her fridge, I patently refused to be her emergency chauffeur or agent, limiting myself to advice if she asked for it but insisting that she had to do everything herself.   She expressed resentment at my lack of parental support from the perspective of what other Israeli parents were doing for their children. Upon later thought, I understood that I had applied my upbringing and personal values, the typical American insistence to be “adult” and stand one’s own feet, albeit shaky ones. I later explained my way of thinking to her, which she accepted. Still, it brought to light how my cultural value had influenced my reaction to her requests for “routine” help.

I do not regret my throwing her in to the deep water as it has made her stronger and more responsible. Yet, I recognize that the chosen way to cut the umbilical cord reflects both general cultural and personal individual values.  In summary, on the subject of fledglings, listen to this song by Arik Einstein, He says it all in my view.