Monday, June 27, 2005

Are you stationed in a Yiddish speaking country?

I've been thinking about working on my Yiddish language skills. A bit of exploring brought me to this website, which promises an effective method for learning to speak Yiddish.

I can't pass judgment on the method, which I haven't tried, since I'm still busy laughing at the website itself. Clearly the page on Yiddish has been generated automatically from a standard webpage template, producing absurdities such as the following:

Who Should Use Phrasebase

...Expatriates on overseas work assignments based in Yiddish speaking countries, Military Personnel stationed in Yiddish speaking countries, Travelers and backpackers trotting the globe and vacationers traveling abroad to immerse themselves in the Yiddish culture.

... People focused on conversational language, the ability to talk, listen and verbally communicate in Yiddish with real Yiddish people in their native language.

Yes, I figure once I brush up on my Yiddish I should plan a trip to some Yiddish speaking countries to "immerse myself in the Yiddish culture", and "communicate in Yiddish with real Yiddish people in their native language". Any suggestions?

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Spot the democracy


Election inspectors were out in force today watching for vote rigging as Iranians turned out to elect a president in a runoff that pits a former two-term president against the conservative mayor of Tehran.

The city was tense and buzzing with activity as polling places appeared more crowded than during the first round, a week earlier, in the contest between former President Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a stalwart of the Islamic revolution, and Mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a newcomer to national politics who campaigned as a pious everyman.

The presidential runoff, the first since the 1979 revolution, presented voters with two distinct choices, and two directions for the country....


The Zionist General Council unanimously elected Ra'anana mayor Ze'ev Bielski as interim chairman of the Jewish Agency on Friday morning after former minister Natan Sharansky removed himself from the race.

Most of the World Likud faction that nominated Sharansky walked out before the vote to protest a controversial decision by the agency's powerful Advise and Consent Committee to reject Sharansky's candidacy.


The Advise and Consent committee is made up of wealthy international donors who support the agency. Its head, Agency Board of Governors chair Carole Solomon, said Sharon made it clear that Bielski was the only acceptable candidate.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Are rails really safer than roads?

Tuesday's terrible train accident on the Tel Aviv-Beersheva line, with at least eight fatalities, has turned the spotlight briefly onto the subject of rail safety in Israel in general.

Passenger rail use is booming in Israel in recent years, with new routes and stations opened yearly. One of the arguments road safety advocates routinely make in favor of trains is that rail travel is much safer than the roads. I'd like to put that proposition to the test.

Conveniently, Sunday marked the launch of the new website of Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics. Much easier to use than their old site, it's the place to go for official statistics about all aspects of life in Israel. Heaven for statistics freaks like me.

One must be cautious when comparing stats between road and rail accidents, since the data is recorded in different terms. Also, most rail accidents also involve road vehicles, so there may be some double counting. Bear that in mind while absorbing the following.

As I see it, the most significant statistic regarding transportation accidents is the number of fatal accidents per passenger kilometer. It answers the ultimate question: If you travel a certain distance, how likely are you to be in a fatal accident (God forbid)?

(Alternately, one could look at the number of actual fatalities per passenger kilometer, but that statistic is more volatile due to occasional high-fatality accidents. Either way, the overall analysis doesn't change much.)

Just the stats, please
Let's start with the roads. Road vehicles travelled an estimated 38944 million kilometers in 2003 (PDF), the last year for which complete data is available. An average year recently has seen about 450 fatal road accidents. Making an assumption favorable to trains, let's assume that the average vehicle contains one passenger (it's obviously significantly higher than that due to families, vans, buses). That gives us an average of 11.6 fatal accidents per billion passenger kilometers.

Trains, meanwhile, carried an estimated 1278 million passenger kilometers (PDF) in 2003, and recent years have seen an average of 16 fatal train accidents (see PDF charts here, here and here). The average: 12.5 fatal accidents per billion passenger kilometers. Not that different from the roads, and certainly no better.

Since the average road vehicle clearly carries more than one passenger, the roads actually fare even better than that compared to trains. It also seems likely that a typical fatal train accident has more fatalities than a typical fatal car accident, but I have no statistics on that.

Admittedly, such raw statistics can be misleading. Stats for road accidents include both urban and intercity travel; no one in Israel takes the train to go down to the shops. Yet, trains do travel in and out of city centers, so they do substitute for urban transport as well as interurban.

In any case, these are the best statistics currently available (to my knowledge). And they don't support the claim that rail is safer than road. Not by a long shot.

Surprised? Isn't it obvious that trains should be safer than cars, since they travel on fixed rails, separated from pedestrians and other vehicles, without turning or changing lanes? Yet trains have no way to maneuver to avoid an obstacle. They also travel much faster than cars, and are many times heavier, generating a far more powerful collision. Nearly every train accident is fatal. They're probably rarely the fault of the train, but that's little consolation.

One of these days I'll hopefully get around to debunking the widespread belief that the roads in Israel are much more dangerous than they are in other developed countries. Stay tuned.

Update (June 26):

Over the weekend, I've been mulling this over, and I realized that some of my reasoning was incomplete. Let me clarify two points regarding the following statement:
...the most significant statistic regarding transportation accidents is the number of fatal accidents per passenger kilometer. It answers the ultimate question: If you travel a certain distance, how likely are you to be in a fatal accident?

I could have phrased this better. More precisely, comparing fatal accidents per passenger kilometer answers this question: If the same number of people travel the same distance by rail and by road, in which scenario will there be more fatal accidents?

The misleading phrase is "how likely are you to be in a fatal accident". The issue is that fatal accidents include those fatal to anyone, passengers and pedestrians alike. "You" the passenger may not be the one killed, or even the one most likely to be killed. Except for severe train accidents like last week's, fatal accidents involving trains usually kill non-passengers, such as the passengers of vehicles hit by the train.

The passengers on a train are generally much safer than passengers in cars. But, for the same reason, the train is far more dangerous to non-passengers than a car is. This is similar to one of the arguments made by the anti-SUV brigades: SUVs may be safer for their occupants, but they are more dangerous to those in other vehicles and on foot.

When you see claims that trains are much safer than cars, check whether the statistics offered for train accidents include fatalities to non-passengers. No one would publish road accident statistics which exclude fatalities to pedestrians. Why should trains be held to a different standard?

A second, related point is that the statistics on the annual number of rail accidents in Israel include both passenger trains and freight trains. I haven't found this broken down between passenger and freight, nor have I found stats on the number of passenger trains versus freight trains on the rails. Clearly, accidents involving freight trains are not relevant to the question of which form of passenger transport is safer. If I could find better data, I would use it. I expect the overall picture remains unchanged, though.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Googly-eyed ads IV (aka Nu-de Jews Editing the Holy Quran)

Google Ads have done it again. Visiting Out of Step Jew today, I was confronted with the following commercial messages:

They're all so tempting I don't know where to click first! Talk about out of step...

(Previous posts in this series: Sell Your Settlement, Gaza Strip Singles, Messianic Connections)

Monday, June 20, 2005

False positives can be deadly

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. Please consult your own medical caregivers for medical advice.

I've been meaning to write about this topic for months now, but I haven't managed to express myself clearly enough. Rabbi Lazer Brody expresses many of my thoughts about prenatal ultrasound here and here.

The facts are clear: There is no scientific evidence that the routine use of ultrasound improves the outcome of pregnancy for the mother or baby. Its long-term safety for mother and baby have not been adequately studied (though there's no evidence of danger.) The professional organizations in the U.S., for example, recommend the use of prenatal ultrasound only when "medically indicated" - i.e., when there's already evidence of a problem that needs to be diagnosed. Not as a routine tool used frequently (that's how it's used in Israel).

Rebooting the baby
Ultrasound scans for fetal defects have a high rate of "false positives" - that is, false indications of problems that don't really exist. This sends both parents and their doctors into a panic, and abortion is often advised. "You can always try again" is the attitude, often expressed explicitly by doctors. As if a baby can just be rebooted and started from scratch. As if anything that deviates from the norm is inherently suspect ("Ear looks too small, foot looks too big - might be a problem"). As if biological processes can ever be perfect, no matter how much technology we throw at them.

Furthermore, they have a high rate of "false negatives" - that is, they fail to identify a large number of problems which actually exist. Then the parents, made complacent by their doctors' assurances that everything looks fine, are shocked to discover undiagnosed defects (God forbid) when the baby is born. Is false complacency better than pure ignorance?

We're number one!
You may be surprised to learn that Israel leads the world in fetal testing. We left one early prenatal visit with a page-long list of recommended tests, everything from genetic screening to fetal anatomy ultrasound scans. The implication was that we were expected to have all of them done - no advice was given as to the drawbacks of any of the tests, or the possible advantages of having them. Many of them are also not covered by national health insurance here, and some are quite expensive.

What the doctors fail to mention is that most prenatal tests are not conclusive. You're left with a statistical indication - some better than others, but nonetheless not a certainty. What they also don't tell you is that in nearly all cases, there's no treatment that can be administered as a result. If something is (apparently) wrong, the only "remedy" is abortion.

We determined very early on that we would not consider abortion on the basis of less than 100% certainty of a serious problem. (I'm not a rabbi, but I also believe this is the clear consensus of halachic authorities.) Since none of the tests can provide that certainty (not even amniocentesis, which causes miscarriages more often than it identifies problems), we saw no reason to have them done.

(We eventually relented on the skirat maarchot murchevet, the "extended anatomy scan", due to heavy pressure from our caregivers. In retrospect, I regret having done it. It caused us unnecessary worry by identifying nonexistent "problems" which cleared up on their own over time.)

Running long lists of tests on apparently-healthy fetuses entrenches the presumption that pregnancy is a situation always on the brink of disaster. It instills fear into parents, who are led to believe that if they skip the tests they are acting irresponsibly. The fetal anatomy scan, which I gather was invented in Israel and is virtually standard here, is the worst example. The doctor will proceed through a checklist of organs making sure each is "okay" - that is, conforming to the normal expectations. Statistically, if you run enough tests, some of them will be positive. That doesn't necessarily mean anything is actually wrong. (On top of that, they also offer an "early anatomy scan" to catch some problems the later scan can't see.)

Perfection through technology
Healthy babies are born all over the world without a single ultrasound scan. Even today in Europe and North America, many pregnancies proceed without recourse to ultrasound, or using it only when medically indicated.

What is it about Israel? Are Israeli parents so terrified of abnormalities that they must run every test in the book? Are Israeli doctors so terrified of malpractice suits that they dare not let a defect slip through when it's always possible to abort? Are Israelis so obsessed with technology that they believe life can be sterilized from all doubt and risk with sufficiently advanced equipment?

As Rabbi Brody notes, thousands of abortions are performed in Israel every year on the basis of highly-uncertain test results. Rav Ovadiah Yosef commented on this a few months ago, calling on women not to have abortions due to "defects" identified on ultrasound.

I'm not a Catholic. Jewish law permits abortion in limited circumstances, mostly when the mother's life is in danger. I can't imagine, though, that any rabbi would permit abortion due solely to a doctor's interpretation of statistically uncertain medical tests.

Medical technology can accomplish wonderful things. Let's not allow our appreciation for technology to blind us to its limitations. No one can guarantee you a perfect baby. For that, your only recourse is prayer.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Backlog of tidbits

Some thoughts I've had during my blogging hiatus. In no particular order:

  • The Deep Throat revelation got me thinking about the aftermath of Watergate and the affair's many direct and indirect consequences, most of them negative. But the worst of them by far: The election of Jimmy Carter.

  • When I first visited Israel in the 1980s, it was impossible to find American-style peanut butter. Peanut butter in any form was not common, but the variety available here was "natural" peanut butter, otherwise known to a typical American kid as "yukky" peanut butter. No sugar, no preservatives, no stabilizers. The oil would separate from the butter, leaving an oily layer on top of the jar that you had to blend in by hand. Yuk! Once in a while you might find a shop with American peanut butter, but it was expensive.

    Israel has changed, and so have I. American brands of peanut butter are now easy to find in Israeli supermarkets (though still not that popular). But my tastes (and diet) have changed too, and I now hardly touch the sweetened, processed, emulsified, industrial stuff. To find natural peanut butter, however, you now have to get to a health food store, or at least the health food section of a large supermarket. And you have to pay extra for it.

    At least you can't find anything resembling American "bread" in Israel!

  • Since moving to Israel, I've rarely missed celebrating two days of Yom Tov. One is enough, thank God. The exception is Shavuot. It's deprived to start with, lasting only one (or two) days, compared with the week-long Pesach and Sukkot. But the clincher is the Tikkun Leil Shavuot. After learning Torah all night long and then sleeping till noon, I simply need a second day of Yom Tov to recover. (Irony: In the time of the Temple, Shavuot was the only festival which would never have been celebrated for two days, even in the diaspora.)

  • I saw Revenge of the Sith. Good fun. The sets were tremendous, with an impressive attention to detail, making fantasy worlds seem utterly real. It seemed a shame at times how briefly some of them appeared on screen. Anakin was the main disappointment - the acting, not the character. His lines were dry and cliched, and the delivery was stiff and lifeless. And the film lacked some of the levity of the original trilogy, but then again this was meant to be the darkest film of the series.

    After the showing, I thought about Sarah's spoilerless post about Anakin's father. She "totally called it", she claimed. But I was sure nothing in the film even referred to Anakin's father. Googling around various fan message boards, I see that the identity of Anakin's father remains hotly debated, and that Lucas probably meant to leave it ambiguous. I'm not sure which theory Sarah "called", but I'm skeptical.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Flying safely

As long as I'm back, an item from the news.

Anne Applebaum writes what everyone already knows about the TSA, America's federal airport security bureaucracy: It's expensive, implements silly and useless procedures, and provides no better security than the private screeners which preceded its establishment.

She overlooks the greatest absurdity, though: After TSA confiscates your toenail clippers and nail files, you board the plane and are served dinner. There, you receive a handy set of stainless steel flatware: Spoon, fork and knife. Hey, at least it's not something dangerous like a toenail clipper.

Addicted to not blogging

It's easy to become addicted to blogging. Has anyone measured the dose of adrenaline produced by one more post, one more comment, one more referral? I don't expect hundreds of thousands of hits anytime soon, but, as with anything in life, I take satisfaction from my accomplishments regardless of how I compare with others.

Lately, though, I've encountered the reverse phenomenon. I've become addicted to not blogging.

It started with an unplanned confluence of events. Crunch time at work. Then a series of minor colds and ailments which served to keep me in bed, while only aggravating the office crunch.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of an increasingly-imminent occasion, my wife and I have been frantically engaged in preemptive shopping, reading and consultation on matters related to childbirth. When it comes to doctors, we prefer to deal from a position of strength. We like to know as much or more about a subject as they do before entrusting ourselves to their care. How hard can it be anyway?

Suddenly I found I didn't have time to read the blogs every day, let alone write anything myself. Before long I stopped thinking obsessively about posting topics. I no longer kept a stack of posting ideas in my head, or in a handy computer file. I started getting work done. I became increasingly expert on matters related to midwifery.

Most surprisingly, though, I lost that blogging urge. That constant itch to bang out a new post. That need to refresh the hit counter. That eagerness to see what comments I've provoked (usually none...).

Each time I thought about posting, I thought twice. Why bother? What do I need it for? I'm happy just the way I am, Mister Rogers. I dare say I got a certain high from the "act" of not blogging, a certain rush every time I didn't surf to

Believe it or not, I even failed to note my first blogoversary. I just forgot all about it. Really.

I'm even having the hardest time typing this post. I feel the weight of weeks of not blogging on my shoulders.

Inertia works both ways. A moving body is hard to stop, and a stopped one is hard to move.

I don't know how long I'll stay addicted to not blogging. Consider yourself warned.