Monday, 7 January 2008

Traffic news from the Economist

LOL. The Economist article of Jan 5th 2008 on George W.'s visit to the Middle East starts thus: "THE smart people are getting out of Jerusalem next week. Traffic mayhem is assured as George Bush and his entourage, about 800 souls, guarded by thousands of Israeli police, are whisked about in a fleet of armoured vehicles.."

Well I don't read Israeli newspapers or watch TV news anymore so I had a vague idea that Bush was due to visit here sometime soon but nothing concrete. So when I read the Economist article last night, just before a 2 day visit to Jerusalem, I was amused that the Economist is now providing me with very useful traffic information.....

Friday, 2 November 2007

The BBC's new woes

I just started reading an article in Time magazine about the BBC and the woes besetting it. The article mentions The Eastenders, a popular British TV soap opera which has been running for over 20 years.

In 1986 when there were far fewer TV channels to choose from (and no Internet) EastEnders had 30 million viewers for its portrayal of everyday life and dramas. Now there is apocryphal melodrama and violence in order to retain the dwindling audience , currently 9 million.

This small example suddenly gave me insight to see that this is the way the conventional media is trying to cop ewith its declining audiences. They seem to be in a kind of frantic and desperate competition to bombard us with ever higher drama, hysteria and provocation in order to keep us watching and reading. Sad, doomed to failure and probably self-defeating.

"Dramatic" announcement of Olmert's prostate cancer

Cancer is still a scary word although more and more forms or cancer can be cured or arrested. But the media (unlike doctors) don't want to calm you. A few days ago Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, called a press conference to announce that he has a "malignant growth in his prostate gland" i.e. prostate cancer.

This is far from uncommon amongst males over 50 and is well treatable by a variety of means. Mr Olmert decided to go public with the information (and his decision to have it surgically treated) a few days after being told by his doctors. He did so in a very sober, balanced way and any rational professional would agree that there is no particular cause for concern. That, of course, did not stop all the newscasters and commentators from talking about the "dramatic" announcement. But there was no drama there. They, the media, as usual are trying to create it

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

No news today

No news today
Originally uploaded by dlisbona
For reasons that I am prepared to divulge I no longer consume any of the Israeli news media, with the exception of looking at the cover page of Maariv every morning. Today's issue is classic in that there's not a single items on the cover that could be defined as "news" in the conventional old-fashioned sense of the term.

For some months there has been not much "news" in the media and Maariv's cover page has slowly been taken over by lifestyle and and trivial stories. Today is, however, the peak of achievement. I personally I would be happy with a banner headline "No news today" and Simpsons cartoons on the rest of the cover page. But I'm not sure they'll oblige. The ditors might argue that, on the eve of a holiday nobody wants "news" but maybe the truth is that the Israeli public is tired of all the traditional news anyway.

Obituary of a parrot

An obituary is a piece written in a newspaper about someone (famous) who recently died. The obituary section was a classic in quality newspapers at least in the English -speaking world. It used to be a great place for aspiring print journalists to hone their writing skills. A few years ago the one newspaper (it's a weekly) that I revere, enjoy and read regularly, The Economist, added an obituary section and its choice of the weekly winner is occasionally eclectic. None more so than this week's, which mourns the passing of a famous parrot.

Alex the African Grey

Sep 20th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Science's best known parrot died on September 6th, aged 31

Brandeis University

THE last time Irene Pepperberg saw Alex she said goodnight as usual. "You be good," said Alex. "I love you." "I love you, too." "You'll be in tomorrow?" "Yes, I'll be in tomorrow." But Alex (his name supposedly an acronym of Avian Learning Experiment) died in his cage that night, bringing to an end a life spent learning complex tasks that, it had been originally thought, only primates could master.

In science as in most fields of endeavour, it is important to have the right tool for the job. Early studies of linguistic ability in apes concluded it was virtually non-existent. But researchers had made the elementary error of trying to teach their anthropoid subjects to speak. Chimpanzee vocal cords are simply not up to this—and it was not until someone had the idea of teaching chimps sign language that any progress was made.

Even then, the researchers remained human-centric. Their assumption was that chimps might be able to understand and use human sign language because they are humanity's nearest living relatives. It took a brilliant insight to turn this human-centricity on its head and look at the capabilities of a species only distantly related to humanity, but which can, nevertheless, speak the words people speak: a parrot.

The insight in question came to Dr Pepperberg, then a 28-year-old theoretical chemist, in 1977. To follow it up, she bought a one-year-old African Grey parrot at random from a pet shop. Thus began one of the best-known double acts in the field of animal-behaviour science.

Dr Pepperberg and Alex last shared a common ancestor more than 300m years ago. But Alex, unlike any chimpanzee (with whom Dr Pepperberg's most recent common ancestor lived a mere 4m years ago), learned to speak words easily. The question was, was Alex merely parroting Dr Pepperberg? Or would that pejorative term have to be redefined? Do parrots actually understand what they are saying?

Bird brained

Dr Pepperberg's reason for suspecting that they might—and thus her second reason for picking a parrot—was that in the mid-1970s evolutionary explanations for behaviour were coming back into vogue. A British researcher called Nicholas Humphrey had proposed that intelligence evolves in response to the social environment rather than the natural one. The more complex the society an animal lives in, the more wits it needs to prosper.

The reason why primates are intelligent, according to Dr Humphrey, is that they generally live in groups. And, just as group living promotes intelligence, so intelligence allows larger groups to function, providing a spur for the evolution of yet more intelligence. If Dr Humphrey is right, only social animals can be intelligent—and so far he has been borne out.

Flocks of, say, starlings or herds of wildebeest do not count as real societies. They are just protective agglomerations in which individuals do not have complex social relations with each other. But parrots such as Alex live in societies in the wild, in the way that monkeys and apes do, and thus Dr Pepperberg reasoned, Alex might have evolved advanced cognitive abilities. Also like primates, parrots live long enough to make the time-consuming process of learning worthwhile. Combined with his ability to speak (or at least "vocalise") words, Alex looked a promising experimental subject.

And so it proved. Using a training technique now employed on children with learning difficulties, in which two adults handle and discuss an object, sometimes making deliberate mistakes, Dr Pepperberg and her collaborators at the University of Arizona began teaching Alex how to describe things, how to make his desires known and even how to ask questions.

By the end, said Dr Pepperberg, Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old child and had not reached his full potential. He had a vocabulary of 150 words. He knew the names of 50 objects and could, in addition, describe their colours, shapes and the materials they were made from. He could answer questions about objects' properties, even when he had not seen that particular combination of properties before. He could ask for things—and would reject a proffered item and ask again if it was not what he wanted. He understood, and could discuss, the concepts of "bigger", "smaller", "same" and "different". And he could count up to six, including the number zero (and was grappling with the concept of "seven" when he died). He even knew when and how to apologise if he annoyed Dr Pepperberg or her collaborators.

And the fact that there were a lot of collaborators, even strangers, involved in the project was crucial. Researchers in this area live in perpetual fear of the "Clever Hans" effect. This is named after a horse that seemed to count, but was actually reacting to unconscious cues from his trainer. Alex would talk to and perform for anyone, not just Dr Pepperberg.

There are still a few researchers who think Alex's skills were the result of rote learning rather than abstract thought. Alex, though, convinced most in the field that birds as well as mammals can evolve complex and sophisticated cognition, and communicate the results to others. A shame, then, that he is now, in the words of Monty Python, an ex-parrot.

Friday, 14 September 2007

The Mohammed Dura case

Without going into all the details, it seems that there is more than reasonable doubt about the veracity and objective representation of what happened there. But who will care? It is old news. Journalists, like all of us, see things through their prejudices. And when they smell a scoop, a good story, then care, objectivity and truthfulness often go out of the window.

The following is from

September 11, 2007
Nous accusons!
Tomorrow*, an appeal starts in Paris in a case which encapsulates all that is most rotten and murderous about the media war against Israel and its truly monstrous consequences. At the beginning of the second intifada, an event occurred which more than any other was to incite mass hysteria against Israel, lead directly to the terrorist murder of Jews and whip up demonstrations and incitement against Israel and the west throughout the Arab and Muslim world. On September 30, 2000 viewers around the world watched a short news clip screened by the TV station France 2 which appeared to show the killing by the Israel Defence Force of a Palestinian boy, Muhammad al-Dura, at Netzarim junction in Gaza. The boy was shown crouching with his father behind a barrel next to a concrete wall in an apparently vain attempt to shelter from the gun-battle between Israel and the Palestinians that was raging around them. In his commentary on the incident France 2’s Israel correspondent, Charles Enderlin, declared that the IDF had killed the boy.
This footage become the iconic image of the intifada and the Palestinian ‘struggle’ against Israel. It served to incite terrorist violence and atrocities as well as inflaming hatred of Israel around the world. It was used in Palestinian educational materials to incite other children to turn themselves into human bombs. It was used repeatedly in al Qaeda’s videotape of the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. It was used to whip Iraqi Republican Guards into a frenzy before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. And most stomach-churning of all, it was invoked by the Palestinian mob in Ramallah that lynched IDF reservists Yosef Avrahami and Vadim Novesche, who had taken a wrong turning, two weeks after the alleged al Durah killing. As Joanna Chandler wrote in
The consequences of their fatal error are well known: they were tortured and beaten to death in the Palestinian Authority police station, and their lifeless bodies thrown out of the station’s second story window to a throng of men howling, Allahu Akbar —God is great! They commenced to dismember and disembowel the soldiers’ corpses, and then passed the entrails on a platter to a hysterical mob numbering in the thousands who rejoiced as they literally chewed and swallowed the remains of their hated Jews. What is lesser known is that while eating the flesh and blood of their victims, in satisfaction and triumph, the good citizens of Ramallah chanted, not only, Allahu-Akbar—but the name of Mohamed al Durah!
But it quickly became apparent that the IDF could not have killed al Durah. Initially, the Israeli government had taken responsibility for his death, but it later concluded that the whole thing was a fraud because it was physically impossible for the IDF to have shot at the al Duras from their position that day at the Netzarim junction. Several other independent commentators came to the same conclusion, including extensive investigations by the French-language Israeli news agency MENA, a German television documentary film by Esther Schapira called Three Bullets and a Dead Child: Who Shot Muhammad al-Dura? and the Atlantic Monthly; along with Richard Landes, a Boston University historian, who has claimed on his blog, Augean Stables, his website, The Second Draft, and in three films—Pallywood, The Birth of an Icon, and Icon of Hatred—that the al Dura ‘killing’ was staged.
On November 24, 2004, Philippe Karsenty, founder of the French online media watchdog, Media Ratings, sent out an email to his subscribers in which he accused the France 2 television network of staging the al Durah ‘killing’. He called for the resignation of both Charles Enderlin and France 2’s News Director, Arlette Chabot, for their role in promulgating the alleged hoax. France 2 and Enderlin sued Karsenty for defamation, and won. Tomorrow sees the opening of Karsenty’s appeal. The behaviour to date of both the French judges and France 2 has been simply outrageous.
The footage in question was filmed by a Palestinian cameraman, Talal abu Rahma. France 2 is holding 27 minutes of raw footage of his film which it refuses to release. Independent investigators have repeatedly asked it to do so. It refuses point blank. Why? Since it transmitted parts of this footage, why does it refuse to release the rest of it? The most likely reason is that the unscreened footage proves that the ‘killing’ was indeed nothing of the kind.
During his trial last summer, Karsenty presented all the investigative evidence that had been accumulated. The prosecution brought no witnesses, and challenged none of his evidence. The recommendation of the Procureur was that Karsenty be acquitted. Yet astoundingly, the court decided against Karsenty and in favour of France 2 and Enderlin. It seems that the sole factor behind this perverse decision was a
letter produced in court from the then French president Jacques Chirac to Enderlin in which Chirac praised Enderlin’s book and his general proficiency. That presidential encomium was apparently enough to persuade the judges that Enderlin could not possibly be guilty of journalistic fraud. Karsenty was accordingly judged guilty not on the basis of evidence against him—there was none — but because the French judiciary dances to attention whenever the French President jerks their strings, and the establishment sticks together.
From the evidence that has become available, it is quite clear that the ‘killing’ of Mohammed al Durah was nothing of the kind. Look for yourself.
Here is the France 2 original film; and here is the Second Draft film which shows why it’s a fake. In her article, Joanna Chandler itemises some of the startling revelations in this footage:
Western audiences viewed a 55 second video of the supposed “killing,” at the end of which news commentators dolefully announce the “death” of the boy. The 55 seconds shown on television is actually 7 segments of film pieced together. At the end of the 7th segment, two fingers appear in the viewfinder, indicating that this last segment was a second “take.” The two fingers are only visible if the tape is played in slow motion. An additional 3 seconds of film exists—three seconds that television viewers were deprived of observing. In this segment, the “dead” boy and his father reappear. Then, something extraordinary occurs: The boy raises his elbow and right leg, turns his head and furtively looks around, replaces his head and elbow in the “dead” position, but appears to have forgotten about his leg. He leaves it suspended in the air for the duration of the clip.
The two fingers after the boy is pronounced dead, plus the clip of the boy’s movements after he supposedly “dies,” is widely available on the internet for all the world to see. Strangely, there has been little forensic, let alone, scientific and journalistic, curiosity about this novel phenomenon. Evidently, the fervent belief in life after death explains the absence of even a single collective guffaw—let alone any critical analysis of why a “corpse” would behave in so untoward a manner. Nor did the fact that Mohamed al Durah’s “death” required two “takes” arouse any journalistic, or even theatrical curiosity…
Although, the boy’s posthumous movements should have pronounced the al Durah hoax dead on arrival, there is no shortage of further evidence of the deception. The Israeli soldiers are alleged to have continuously shot the boy and his father from their guard post for a duration of 45 minutes, with the intention of killing them. In the film, the al Durahs are crouched against a wall. Immediately to the right of the screen is a cement barrel, topped by a concrete cinder block, also located against the wall. The al Durahs, the wall, and the barrel are in plain view of the camera, and the al Durahs appear to be using the barrel as a shield against fire coming from an unseen location on the other side of it. The unseen location is assumed to be the guard post from which, unseen assailants, presumably, Israeli soldiers, are, allegedly, “firing.” However, the al Durahs are concealed by the barrel and are, therefore, not visible to the soldiers in the guard post.
Because the Israeli soldiers could not see the pair, they could not have fired on them deliberately. Furthermore, even if Mohamed al Durah were shot by bullets coming from an unseen location on the other side of the barrel, by unseen assailants, presumably, Israeli, there should be bullet holes on the section of the barrel that directly faces him. In fact, not a single bullet exited the barrel from the supposed Israeli direction to reach the boy. There are no bullet holes on the side of the barrel behind which Mohamed al Durah is “hiding.” On the contrary, seven bullet holes were found in the wall against which the Al Durahs were crouched. The bullets that created these holes appeared to have been fired from the same direction from which the pair were being filmed, that is, from a Palestinian position located behind the camera, and not from the direction of the Israeli position, as alleged.
The boy’s father claimed that he had been shot in the hand, arm, elbow and leg and that he suffered a crushed pelvis. He also said that Mohamed received a bullet to his stomach that exited from the back. According to the cameraman, Abu Rahmeh, Mohamed bled for 20 minutes. But, in the film clip broadcast the world over, and in the additional 3 seconds not commonly seen by television viewers, there are no signs of blood on the Al Durahs, on the wall behind them, nor on the ground.
Three hours of raw footage from Reuters and AP, taken in the vicinity of the Netzarim junction in Gaza, on September 30, 2000—the very same day as the supposed “killing” of the boy—show dozens of Palestinian Arab children attacking the Israeli guard post, not only from the ground, but from adjacent buildings that looked down upon it, with Molotov cocktails, heavy objects, including appliances, stones, and other projectiles. Many of these landed on the roof directly over the heads of the approximately 20 soldiers inside. Surely, if they had desired to kill children, those in plain view, lobbing their Molotov cocktails, would have been easy targets—unlike the Al Durahs, who were not threatening the soldiers, were not attacking the soldiers, were not visible to the soldiers, were not in the line of fire of the soldiers, but were, in fact, impossible targets for the soldiers.
Despite the attempted arson and other violent aggression against the guard post, at no time are Israeli soldiers filmed firing upon the Arab Palestinian children. The dozens of reporters and cameramen observing the evil mischief of these “innocents” were waiting for them to provoke a shooting incident. If the Israeli soldiers had fired even a single shot at the children, it is impossible that the cameras would have missed it. Indeed, they were waiting for nothing else! In fact, other than the phony Al Durah “killing,” not a single Arab Palestinian child was reported killed or injured by Israelis at the Netzarim Junction that day. It is beyond the realm of possibility that the Israeli soldiers in the guard post would have ignored these children in favor of shooting at Mohamed al Durah and his father who were not violent, not present and not even visible to them.
This raw footage, in other sequences, is rich with evidence of typically staged atrocities and is widely available on the internet. One can see a phony ambulance evacuation and a pretend battle in which Arab Palestinians are firing into what turns out to be an empty building. There are scenes in which men dressed in civilian clothing are instructing others dressed in military uniform in the staging of heroic battle scenes with nonexistent Israeli soldiers. There are faked injuries. Phony “victims” are handled roughly and stuffed into ambulances while bystanders smile and give each other “high fives.” The al Durahs are seen crouching behind their barrel while a panicked crowd runs away. In another faked scene, a hoard of Arab Palestinians appears to be fleeing and scrambling to get out of the line of Israeli fire while other Arab Palestinians calmly stroll the streets, and go about their business with their children and families. If all the others are panicking, why aren’t they? The answer: They know the scene is staged.
This scandal has many layers of evil. It reveals the wickedness of the Palestinians who so cynically stage hoaxes like this, as a result of which murderous hatred and mass hysteria are exponentially spread and innocent people are attacked and butchered in a rising spiral of terrorist atrocities. It reveals the wickedness of western journalists who transmit footage they know is a fraud as a matter of routine, becoming as a result active collaborators in the deaths of innocents. As someone from France 2 remarked during this affair, ‘It happens all the time’. Sure it does — we saw it last year in the Lebanon war when ‘atrocities’ that had been faked by Hezbollah were transmitted as true accounts by broadcasting organisations which turned a blind eye to the evidence of journalistic fraud because the story they told fitted the broadcasters’ own prejudices. And it reveals the intellectual corruption of the French judiciary, which perpetrates a transparent injustice and in turn helps further promulgate a murderous lie because, instead of holding power to account, the French judiciary is in its pocket.
To my knowledge, there has been no coverage whatsoever of these revelations about the al Durah footage, let alone the Karsenty case, in the British media. That says it all. They are so resistant to the suggestion that the story in which they so fervently believe — that Israel is the evil aggressor in the Middle East and the Palestinians are their innocent victims —might be wrong, that they simply do not register any evidence which bears that out. How can it possibly be the case, they think, that fashionable progressive French journalists (like themselves) could deliberately make themselves party to a lie? Since in their own eyes progressive people are by definition the unique repository of moral virtue, anyone who challenges that position is by definition evil. It is therefore impossible that the Palestinians staged a theatrical hoax, impossible that France 2 deliberately transmitted such a fraud, impossible that the Israelis could be the innocent victims of such a deception. The image of the killing of Mohammed al Durah exists; and the image is all. Nothing else has any reality. The fact that the ‘corpse’ moved and peered behind its hand to see if the cameras were still filming is irrelevant. The terrible thing about so many western journalists is that they really do deeply and sincerely believe their own lies.
The trial of Philippe Karsenty is an event of the greatest political and cultural significance. It may well come to define the relationship of Europe to Israel and the Jews as devastatingly as the 19th century Drefyus affair — in which the false accusation of treason against a patriotic Jewish French army captain produced an outpouring of virulent anti-Jewish prejudice — once convinced an assimilated French journalist by the name of Theodor Herzl that there could be no future for the Jews unless they had their own country. But now the French are determined to traduce and defame that country, too.
The Karsenty appeal is a very big story indeed. Let’s see how many journalists, in these degraded times, are able to recognise it.
*Update: legal argument took place on September 12 while the full hearing is now scheduled to start on September 19.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Financial meltdown (or not)

In case anyone suspects me me of being particularly biased against the Israeli media, I merely consume Israeli media more than others, although even that sparingly.

Here's an example of feral media (I use Tony Blair's term) from the BBC World Service, generally (or at least historically) considered to be a serious, responsible news medium.

Last Friday I was listening to Newshour hosted by Audrey Carvel when the breaking story (in the absence of other stories in a very quiet summer season) was the latest nervousness in international financial markets. At broadcast time, the European stock markets had fallen by some 2% on the day, a significant but not dramatic fall. The markets were waiting for the opening of Wall Street (New York Stock Exchange) but the programme's presenter was already bandying the word "meltdown". It has wonderful connotations of nuclear catastrophe and more. She interviewed several journalists and financial experts and, although she professed concern for the common man (a common journalistic trick), it was quite clear that she was watering at the mouth at the prospect of a wonderful disaster which would make superb news.

It didn't happen (the NYSE fell some 31 points on the day) and it may still. The point is the Schadenfreude of the media, their apparently insatiable appetite for disaster and destruction and anything that can increase the level of fear and hysteria amongst the listening audience. I shall continue listening to as little "news" as possible.