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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Tokyo - A Clean City?

Last Friday night, a friend came over for dinner. He's been living in Tokyo for several years, this being his second stint here. He has also lived in Hong Kong for many years. He claimed that Tokyo is the "filthiest city" in Asia and in comparison with the time he spent here in the 80s, the situation had deteriorated considerably.

This comment took us a bit by surprise, as Tokyo is generally a very clean city. Compared with any major metropolis in the world, and considering the fact Tokyo is home to more than ten million residents (only in Tokyo, not including the suburbs), it is remarkable how clean it is. A lot of this can be attributed to the Japanese sense of cleanness, aesthetics and hygiene. I also heard there is a law that the public area in front of your home is your responsibility, and this is why every morning I see the old ladies from neighbouring houses busy cleaning the pavement and the street and picking up every stray leaf. It is very rare to see someone dropping litter in the street or throwing something out of a driving car.

But there is one area where the Japanese, at least in Tokyo, seem to forget their manners completely: cigarette butts. They seem to be everywhere. In certain areas, most noticeably nearby train stations, the pavements are littered with hunderds of them. Here, I agree with my friend: stricter fines should be imposed on people who litter the streets, especially with "small litter" like cigarette butts. If a person had to pay 20,000 yen (about $200) if caught littering, I'm sure this would do a lot to improve things. Perhaps it is not time yet to enact Singapore-like laws here, but if the authorities do not halt this trend now, it may quickly evolve to become a major problem.

MBA - A Degree for Crooks?

Last week, The Economist ran a story on the MBA degree, following a recent spate of articles blaming business schools for the unethical behaviour of MBA graduates, leading to scandals such as Enron, Tyco and WorldCom.

The critics claim that MBA students are taught according to economics principles of maximizing wealth and that this "frees them from any sense of moral responsibility" for what they do in the business lives. The Economist points out that this view stems from a gross misunderstanding of the MBA degree and that students and employers alike are wrong in assuming that the MBA is a qualification for business leadership. Just as law or medical degrees are necessary but not sufficient for the making of good lawyers or doctors, so business degrees provide skills and knowledge but do not guarantee that a person will become a successful business leader.

From my experience, there is truth to both sides of the argument. All too often during my MBA studies I witnessed students and teachers adopting a stance that if a certain methodology is followed, success is guaranteed. The "case study" approach, which is the dominant approach in most leading business schools, has many merits but one of its failures is that a particular case study provides a false sense of cause-reason certainty. To prove (or disprove) a certain theory, a case study is brought forth as "proof" that the theory can (or cannot) succeed in a real business environment. This results in fallacies such as hasty generalizations or biased samples, leading to over-confidence in business being an exact science and businessmen being pesudo-scientists that can shape the market and the future of their companies solely by their actions.

Having said that, I do agree that an MBA degree cannot be blamed for the corporate scandals that rocked the business world in recent years. Honest people are not bred in business schools. Economic theories such as maximization of shareholder value or the agency paradox or competitive strategies are nothing but tools. Put them in the right hands, and they will be put into practice in a worthy manner; put them in the hands of crooks and they will use them to further unethical practices. Not unlike a doctor, who can use his knowledge to cure or to kill. In that sense, I agree with The Economist's conclusion that "happily, there is no degree programme for [teaching maturity and wisdom]".

Saturday, February 26, 2005


This picture was taken in Tel Aviv by a young artist, Gilad Benari. I think it captures nicely the dichotomic nature of Israeli society.

I Had This Yank in My Cab...

Browsing through Arts & Letters Daily today, I came across this book review in The Daily Telegraph.

Seems like the combination of American writers who think they are funny and writing about England is doomed to end up as a bad book.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Bin Laden - The Perfume

Would you buy a Bin Laden brand perfume?

For the time being this is only a theoretical question, as such a perfume does not exist. But the Swiss-Saudi businessman Yeslam Bin Laden, a half-brother of the notorious terrorist, has just received legal authorization from a court in Switzerland to trademark the name "Bin Laden".

Although there are no "immediate plans" to go commercial with the new brand, Mr. Bin Laden does plan to market a perfume under the name "Yeslam" later this year. I'm sure it will be a hit in France.

Manga - Comics for All

Any person visiting Tokyo will immediately notice the widespread use of animation and comics. At least half of the people reading on the subway will be reading comics. Posters advertising products and services use animated characters. Even respectable organizations will use animated characters: the police use an animated character as their mascot, construction workers put up signs with cartoons showing the way around the pylons and All Nippon Airways has a few of its aircraft painted with Pokemon figures:

Anime (アニメ in katakana) is the Japanese term for animation, apparently a shortened form of the English word. Locally, the more common word for this art form is Manga (マンガ). There are hundreds of manga publications availalbe for sale on every street corner. Entire shops are dedicated to manga (both comics and animation) and some Japanese go to "manga bars" after work to discuss the latest and greatest manga over a glass of beer. At first, it is a little disconcerting to see a 50-year-old man in a business suit standing in the train and reading comics, but after a while one gets used to this common sight:

Manga cartoons and movies are divided by genres, just like any respectable art category. There is the "magical girl" genre, the "cute girls" genre, the shounen genre for boys and its equivalent, the shoujo for girls and the ubiquitous special hentai genre, specializing in erotica. There are manga books, manga films, manga figures and manga merchandise in all shapes and sizes.

If one is disinclined to spend money in order to read a manga read, no problem. In all convenience stores and bookstores in Tokyo there are long rows of shelves offering a wide selection of manga and anime literature. At any time of day (and night) one can see people standing and reading entire books, sometimes for hours on end. Nobody tells them to buy the book if they want to read it... In fact, this practice is so widespread that there is a special term in Japanese for these people: tachi-yomi, literally "standing - reading". And there's a whole etiquette for tachi-yomi: the front copy is the one to pick up and read, so as not to wrinkle the other copies available for purchase; bending down to the thigh-high shelf is done by bending one's knees, in order to avoid taking up too much space; and the line will always move from right to left.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Notes From A Small Island, by Bill Bryson

One word kept coming to mind while I was reading this book: "tarchan". It is a word in Hebrew than I find difficult to translate into English. Perhaps fussy or fastidious or maybe even nit-picker would help to convey its meaning. Bill Bryson reveals himself to be a real tarchan in this book, fastidious to the point of being almost unbearable to read. Considering I loved the only other book I had read by Bryson - A Short History of Nearly Everything - it was even more disappointing to find out that he can be such a fussy fellow.

Notes From a Small Island is a travelogue. After living in England for almost 20 years and before moving back to his native USA, Bryson took a seven-week trip around Britain - from Dover in the South to John O'Groats in the North - in order to "analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about" this small island. The book gets off to a brilliant start, with Bryson recounting his first arrival to England on a ferry from Calais to Dover and his first experiences with British culture and people. This first encounter is written beautifully and Bryson fulfills the promise of the quote from The Times on the front cover: "not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts". But then something goes terribly wrong.

It is obvious Bryson loves Britain. He also loves the British people and their sense of humour. Appropriately, he mimicks that sense of humour in the way he tells his story. However, he misses one important, indeed crucial, aspect of the British raison d'etre: the understatement. Just like a typical American (and I apologise for the generalisation) he overdoes it. Page after page, city after city, Bryson whines and moans about things he does not like. At first, it is funny and somewhat endearing; very quickly it becomes tiresome and annoying. Very quickly I was asking myself: how can Bryson love Britain as much as he says he does, if he feels so much is wrong with it? I guess it is OK to be critical of the subject of your infatuation, but it is quite another to bash it around mercilessly and endlessly.

Here are some random examples:

... Lulworth wasn't anything like I remembered. Its central feature was a vast and unsightly car park, which I had quite forgotten, and the shops, pubs and guesthouses along the street to the cove were dusty and looked hard up... (I) made a small, heartfelt vow never to return to Lulworth as long as I might live (pp. 125-127)

Exeter is not an easy place to love... there seemed to be no reastaurans in Exeter... Exeter was in a foggy glooom that didn't do anything for its appearance (pp. 133-135)

There are certain things that you have to be British or at least older than me, or possibly both, to appreciate... I'm not saying that these things are bad or boring or misguided, merely that their full value and appeal yet eludes me. Into this category, I would also tentatively insert Oxford (p. 152)

My gripe with Oxford is that so much of it is so ugly (p. 154)

I didn't hate Milton Keynes immediately, which I suppose is as much as you could hope for the place (p. 176)

Bradford's role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well (p. 196)

My problem with Manchester, you see, is that I have no image of it, none at all (p. 224)

And so on and so forth, ad nauseam. I avoided quotes about how miserable Bryson felt because of the weather, the food, the service, the trains, the architecture and God knows what else. I think you get the picture.

Interestingly, in the concluding chapters of the book, as Bryson tours Scotland and the northernmost areas of the British Isles, the tone changes and the mood is palpably more positive and upbeat. Alghouth he does not stop the whining completely (I suppose that would be too much to ask for) it does get considerably smaller and further apart. Perhaps it was the indecipherable Scottish accent that made him less angry at everything and everyone. Or perhaps he was just happy to be getting close to the end of the trip and being put out of his misery.

I still think Bryson is a good storyteller and I believe I will be reading more of his books. I just wish Notes From a Small Island would not have been my first dip into the world-famous Bryson travelogue books. The bad taste will remain with me even if his other books do turn out to be less annoying.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Daf Yomi - New Cycle

In less than two weeks, on March 2nd (21st Adar Aleph), a new cycle of the Daf Yomi will begin. It will be the twelfth cycle since R. Meir Shapira created this monumental project in 1923, at the First World Congress of Agudat Israel in Vienna. Each cycle takes about 7.5 years to complete the entire Babylonian Talmud, from Berachot to Niddah, by studying one double-sided page per day (Daf Yomi in Hebrew means "daily page").

I joined about 2.5 years ago, in the middle of Sanhedrin. At the time, I was not sure whether I would be able to devote 40-45 minutes every day to study. Occasionally I was indeed unable to keep up with the pace of the Daf (right now I'm about a week behind), but I always succeeded to catch up. It wasn't always easy, especially considering that the bulk of the study in the past couple of years has been in Sedder Kodashim, which deals with issues that have had no practical significance for over 2,000 years. Today I am more confident that this is an achievable goal and it is with renewed vigour that I look forward to starting the study of Berachot in a couple of weeks and completing my own cycle in about five years!

In our day and age it is easier than ever to study the Daf Yomi. There are shiurim on the internet, in both audio and video formats, from various rabbis in different languages. Personally, I download the MP3 files and study whenever I have time: at home, on the road and during long flights. One no longer has to commit to go to a fixed shiur every day (not that there is one in Tokyo...). I started with R. Elnekave, whose lectures are available in Hebrew at Moreshet but today I study with the excellent rabbis of Meorot HaDaf HaYomi. I highly recommend their website, where one can find the Daf taught in Hebrew, English, French and even Yiddish.

Tetsave - Where is Moshe?

Needless to say, Moshe is the central, most dominant, figure in the Torah; after all, he wrote it as he heard it from God. Four out of the five books of the Torah deal with Moshe, from his birth in Egypt until his death on the eastern side of the Jordan river. So it is not surprising that Moshe appears in almost every chapter of the Torah, beginning with Shemot and ending in VeZot HaBeracha. Curiously, he is absent from this week's parasha. The name "Moshe" does not appear in this shabbat's reading.

The Ba'al Turim explains this absence by referring us to next week's parasha and the story of the golden calf, the egel. In face of God's fury, Moshe prays and pleads with God not to punish the people of Israel for their abominable sin, and he adds a condition: either you, God, forgive them or else you erase my name off the book you wrote, the Torah. Moshe tells God that if He is not willing to pardon Israel for their sin, he does not want to be mentioned in the Torah that God gave Israel. God accepts Moshe's prayer and responds by saying that Moshe's name will not be erased; the names of those who sinned will.

However, since we have a rule that a curse placed by a great sage does not go unfulfilled, Moshe's threat had to be accomodated in some way. And the way was to "erase" his name from one of the parashot in the Torah, and that's the reason why tomorrow we will not mention Moshe's name in the reading.

But why this week and not any other week? Tetsave is almost always read during the week of the 7th of Adar (today is the 9th), which is the date of birth and death of Moshe. We know that Moshe died on this date by calculating back from the date the people of Israel entered the promised land, as described in Yehoshua (it was the 10th of Nissan, after 3 days' work by the spies in Jericho plus 30 days of mourning after Moshe's death, hence the 7th of Adar). And we know this was also his birth date as sages always "complete" their years, and Moshe lived exactly 120 years.

So that is the reason Moshe is absent from this week's parasha. Although we do not have the custom of mourning the death of Moshe on the 7th of Adar, we nevertheless have a sign to mark this date: the absence of his name. It is a reminder both of his unfulfilled curse and of the date of his passing away.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

I picked this book up at the airport, thinking at first that it was a book about human history. I confess I did not know at the time who Bill Bryson is and was blissfully unaware of his widely acclaimed writing record. Obviously, the book turned out to be completely different from what I had expected. Bryson wrote a book about "how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since." In short, a story about the natural history of the world and much more.

Bryson's accomplishment inspires awe and envy. Here is a person with no scientific background who, driven by an insatiable desire to learn, has mastered biology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry and much much more, and then translated this knowledge into a readable account of "nearly everything". The New York Times Book Review wrote that A Short History of Nearly Everything "is destined to become a modern classic of science writing" and I fully agree. Bryson succeeds to explain where we came from and how our world works in terms that every person can understand, while at the same time peppering his tale with humouristic anecdotes about the greatest scientists in history: their lives, their mistakes and their feuds.

This book is a journey in space and time. It takes the reader from the core of the Earth to the infinite reaches of outer space, and from the beginning of time to the future outlook for our planet. In this journey, Bryson brings home two messages, over and over again. First, how insignificant our lives are in comparison with the age of the world and the forces of nature, especially when we take into account the improbable odds of our very existence. Second, how little we know and understand about how we came about, how our planet works or indeed who and what inhabits it besides us. The book is full of facts which leave the reader open-mouthed; several times I had to re-read a sentence just to make sure I understood the full implication of the facts presented in it.

The first thing I did today after finishing the book was to log on to to search for other Bryson books and order them. I am looking forward to getting more acquainted with this wonderful writer in the very near future.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Terumah - God is in the Details

ועשית חמשים קרסי זהב, וחברת את היריעת אשה אל אחתה בקרסים, והיה המשכן אחד

(שמות כ"ו, ו')

I admit that every year when we reach parashat Terumah I feel a mild anti-climax. After the stories of our forefathers in Bereshit and then the long weeks of the Exodus saga in Shemot, culminating in Matan Torah, come the closing chapters of Shemot with all the minute details of the construction of the tabernacle, the mishkan.

Every year I recall the words of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz who pointed out to the glaring discrepancy between the story of creation and the story of the tabernacle. Whereas the Torah devotes a mere thirty-something verses to the entire creation of the world and man, it recounts the details of the building of the tabernacle, basically a roofless mid-sized shack, in more than 300 verses. This, says Leibowitz, is an indicator of what we should focus on in our lives: the worship of God. The whole purpose of the mishkan is avodat hashem, and because this is our purpose in life, the Torah draws our attention to every minute detail. Creation is important of course, but it is irrelevant to what we do with our lives, unlike the "standing before God" which is what we are supposed to strive to achieve every day.

One of the details in our parasha is about the sheets that the tabernacle was wrapped in. These sheets were connected together by hooks and once they were all connected together, the Torah says the "mishkan was one" (Shemot, 26, 6). The Even Ezra points out that the tabernacle wasn't really "one" as it was wrapped in ten different sheets, and that there is only one "one" and that is God. In other words, the tabernacle's "incomplete oneness" reminds us that only God is trule "one".

Let us look at the first occurences of the word "one" (echad) in the Torah. The first echad refers to the oneness of time: "And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night, and the evening and the morning were the first day" (Bereshit 1, 5). The second echad refers to the oneness of place: "And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place" (Bereshit 1, 9). And the third echad refers to the oneness of man: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh" (Bereshit 2, 24). So the first three instances of oneness in the Torah refer to time, place and man. As such, they include within them the entire creation.

But interestingly, all of these oneness concepts deal with pairs: day-night, water-land and man-woman. So in this sense, the oneness expressed in the story of creation is not a oneness of uniqueness but rather a oneness of unification. God's creation is the unification of opposites, creating a world that is "many" but operating as "one".

We are commanded to do the same with the tabernacle. In building this mishkan we are unifying the sheets together to create one place for God to dwell in, one place for us to worship him. But at the same time we are not forgetting that this unification does not create a oneness that is truly unique, as such oneness can only be attributed to God: Shema Israel, HaShem Elokenu, HaShem Echad. As the Rambam taught us, is it a mitzvah to constantly remember that there is only one God and that the attribute of "unique oneness" is only His.

The idea for this week's Parasha Thought is from Mr. Uriel Rosenheim in Oz VeShaom-Netivot Shalom.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Sapporo Snow Festival

This week sees the celebration of the 56th Sapporo Snow Festival, and finally (after more than three years living in Japan) I made it to see this world-famous festival.

Sapporo is the largest city on the northern island of Japan, Hokkaido, an hour and a half's flight from Tokyo. Hokkaido is covered in snow all winter, but apparently this year the snowfall was heavier than normal and indeed the amount of snow on the streets is remarkable. Every year in February people from all over Japan, and some international tourists, flock to this city in order to stroll up and down Odori park and gawk at elaborate snow statues and ice sculptures, some as tall as three-storey buildings. The festival began in 1950 and nowadays it attracts snow-builders from all over the world who compete to build the best sculpture.

Here are pictures I took of some of the statues on display in this year's festival:

Incidentally, Sapporo is also home to one of Japan's leading beer breweries, aptly named... Sapporo Breweries. Although their beers are good what distinguishes them in my book from other Japanese breweries is the fact that they are the importers to Japan of that most perfect of pints: Guinness.

On our second day in Hokkaido we took the train up to Otaru, a relatively small port city that models itself after Venice. It has its own canal (see below) and several glass-blowing factories. The snow seemed to pile even higher in Otaru... And as if it weren't cold enough outside, one of the city's tourist attractions is the Hall of Ice, a museum built entirely out of ice, boasting a small room that replicates antarctic temperatures (-40 celsius)!

Metaphysique des Tubes, by Amelie Nothombe

Amelie Nothombe does it for me once again; I loved this book. It's my third Nothombe book, after Fear and Trembling and Le Sabotage Amoureux. Again this is an "autobiographical fiction" novel, as one can hardly trust Nothombe that she truly recounting her experiences and memories from infancy...

Nothombe was born in Kobe, Japan, while her father was serving as the Belgian consul there. The family lived in a small village, Shukugawa, and the story begins with the birth of Amelie. Only she wasn't Amelie yet; she was only a tube. A tube that thought of itself as God. This God did nothing but eat, digest and excrete its food (hence the "tube") but as far as it was concerned, the tube was happy with its existence. Its parents and doctors, on the other hand, were at a loss. This tube did not develop as a normal child and up until the age of two, it is basically a vegetable and indeed it does not have a name. It is named "the plant" by its parents.

But then everything changes. Suddenly "the plant" starts to cry and protest and from a baby that needed nothing but cleaning and feeding, it becomes an insufferable nightmare. Day and night it cries and cries, and its parents no longer know what to do. They miss the days of "the plant".

The turning point in the life of the tube comes with the visit of her grandmother from Belgium (the visit is somewhat delayed due to the visitor's sartorial needs in preparation for the trip to the east). The grandmother enters the room where the tube is protesting, produces a piece of white chocolate (which the tube accepts after some hesitation), and the transformation occurs. The sweet taste releases the identity of the baby, and Nothombe switches to writing in the first person. Amelie is finally "born".

I will stop here. But the story just begins, with many wonderful and dramatic events in the infant's life unfolding at a fast and spellbinding pace. It's a small book, but it succeeds where many a mightier book fail: a captivating story that is both amusing and dramatic.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Ayn Rand's 100th Birth Anniversary

One hundred years ago today, on February 2nd, 1905, Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum was born. The name might not sound familiar, but this was the name at birth of Ayn Rand, the famous author and proponent of the Objectivism theory.

I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged at a relatively late age; I think I was in my late twenties at the time. I recall reading one of Rand's books on a flight from Israel to Europe when one of the passengers turned and said to me: "I would not have expected a religious person to be reading Ayn Rand". Seems like most people still view religious belief as being incompatible with belief in reason, individualism and self fulfillment, not realizing the two sets of beliefs need not necessarily be mutually exclusive.