Waze: data doing good

December 31, 2012 by · 2 Comments

Waze from iPhoneI love Waze. The Israeli-made driving directions and crowd-sourced traffic app is my constant companion when I leave Jerusalem, and sometimes even when I’m still in town.

For Waze virgins, Waze is a mobile app for the iPhone and Android devices. In addition to providing accurate turn-by-turn directions (making it an awesome and totally free GPS device), the app can calculate where all its active users are and then, simply by determining how fast they’re moving, automatically display traffic jams and advise drivers on which alternative routes will be the fastest.

Waze occasionally gets it wrong but, in 99% of cases, this little app gets me to the church on time. That’s one reason 1.1 million Israelis use Waze (and millions more around the globe – I wrote about the company here for Israel21c).

Waze users are also able to add in information proactively. If you see an accident, pass a police car or slip through a speed trap, there are one-tap buttons to report those. Or you can write more extensive comments (like “car on fire in right hand lane”) – useful to other drivers when stuck in a stand still with no idea what’s up ahead.

Behind the scenes, of course, Waze is collecting this massive amount of data, and now a doctoral student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has shown how, with a little ingenuity, Waze can reveal some useful highway insights that go beyond whether to take Highway 2, 4 or 6.

The student, Michael Fire, and his team at the university compiled their findings into a report called “Data Mining Opportunities in Geosocial Networks for Improving Road Safety.” Fancy name, but the basic focus was to determine where accidents are occurring most frequently on the Israeli road system, and whether there are enough police nearby.

The researchers collected 5,369 accident reports and 29,789 “police nearby” reports, then divided them into a grid of cells based on geographical area. Some of their conclusions:

  • 2,743 areas had at least one accident during the one-month time period used in the research (earlier in 2012)
  • 579 locations had at least five recurring accidents
  • 75 percent of the 20 areas that had received the highest scores for recurring accidents were intersections
  • 40 percent of the 20 areas that received the highest scores for “police nearby” statuses also were intersections
  • 67.9 percent of the accidents reported did not include police intervention. For those that did, police response time for an accident was 28.66 minutes

With the constant harping about how websites are abusing the information they collect about us, it’s refreshing to hear about data doing good. Hopefully, this will be only the beginning of similar student data mining projects with Waze (and other social networks where appropriate), and that the police, the ministries in charge of road safety and the student researchers will find a way to cooperate and use this data to make real improvements in our highway system.

Breaking “Distance”

December 30, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Merav (center) with some of the soldiers in her course in a lighter moment

Merav (center) with some of the soldiers in her course in a lighter moment

Our daughter Merav completed an advanced communications course in the army last week that will allow her to move up in her IDF position. The one-month long program was held at a “closed” base (that’s one where you sleep there, do guard duty, and can’t leave unless given special permission) and was similar in style to basic training, particularly in one aspect: “distance.”

“Distance” refers to where a new recruit or trainee is forbidden to have any relationship with his or her commanders other than to obey orders. On their end, the commanders spend the month holding back any personal information about themselves and keep any outward emotions in check: Merav reports that there was no smiling, no touching, and no sharing of even a hint of what might make a particular commander a human being rather than a tough-as-nails, get-the-job-done superior.

Which is exactly what you’d expect from an army in order to instill discipline. But Israel is famously informal and this kind of “distance” seems out of character for a nation of future entrepreneurs and free thinkers.

That’s why “distance” in the IDF sometimes breaks down in a fabulous and formalized way, as Merav found out at the end of her course, when her commanders burst into the room where their student-soldiers had been gathered, but this time wearing civilian clothes and sporting a round of warm and very genuine smiles.

For the female commanders, they were allowed to let their hair fly loose from the strict ponytails the army insists upon at all other times. Jewelry and make-up were permitted too. The male commanders arrived in t-shirts and jeans. The entire gang of some 30 soldiers and their former overlords then partied into the night together, ordering pizzas, dancing and trading inside jokes.

A friend of ours who was an officer in the U.S. army for many years says that the situation there is entirely different. “There is always 100 percent separation between commissioned officers and enlisted men. That separation lasts forever. No soldier ever called me by my first name, nor would he want to do that. My private life was off limits to enlisted soldiers, and theirs was off limits to me.”

The circumstances may be different regarding Merav’s course, as her commanders were actually NCO’s (non-commissioned officers), which is what she is now too. But Merav reports from her army friends in other units that breaking “distance” occurs with full-fledged officers too.

Merav and the other soldiers in the course will now go off to their new positions, where they will in many cases be working side-by-side with their former classroom commanders. The pizza party was a blast, to be sure, but there’s still a lot of work to be done and the army is not generally characterized by the adjective “fun,” despite the game-like atmosphere of the “breaking distance” ceremony.

But for a few hours, a month of tough training received some much needed punctuation as the cadets and commanders got to let their hair down, literally.

Nostalgia Sunday – Bring Back the Hartzufim!

December 30, 2012 by · Leave a Comment

376_36177482917_8610_nWith less than one month till the elections, our campaign season has moved into high gear. And by that I mean, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Israeli political sideshow has begun!

As always, our TV satire shows carry out the task of aping politicians who are, in any case, behaving the caricatures of themselves.

It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it, and 20 years ago, that mission was fulfilled by Hartzufim, the local version of Spitting Image.

For those too young to remember, Spitting Image was an award-winning British satirical show. According to Wikipedia, “The series featured puppet caricatures of celebrities famous during the 1980s and 1990s. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and fellow Tory politicians, American president Ronald Reagan, and the British Royal Family were the most prominent targets.”

The format was adopted — or simply imitated — around the world to varying degrees of success, depending on how governments, celebrities and other powerful persons reacted to this brand of marionette mockery.

Spitting Image was merciless in its rubbery depictions of politicians and celebrities but as ugly as their puppets were, they were nothing compared to those created for the Israeli version.

Called Hartzufim — a play on the Hebrew words for “bold” (more accurately put as “chutzpah”) and “faces” — it ran from 1996 to 2001 at which time, according to a perhaps biased Wikipedia entry, “having fulfilled its role as a tool to criticize the Netanyahu government and having raised the ire of those surrounding [newly elected] Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the show was shut down”.

Since 2003, Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country), Israel’s most popular satirical show, has done an excellent job of imitating politicians and celebrities but there are no puppets.

In an attempt to fill the void, Channel 10 last week launched Booba Shel Medina (loosely translated as “A Doll of a Country” — “doll” in the sense of baby-doll, honey-doll, sweetie-pie, etc.*).

Booba Shel Medina owes a debt to the Spitting Image tradition as some human actors wear caricature masks and gloves. Despite it being only the first show, the actors seemed very comfortable with one another and with the format. Turns out that’s because they’ve already been doing this for three seasons via cable and satellite on Booba Shel Laila (“A Doll of a Night”) on Sports 5, the Israel sports channel.

Political satire on a sports channel? Who knew? Certainly not I. But given the raucous tone of our election campaigns, politicians, media and voting audience… well, it makes sense.

And if you feel that nothing can replace the Hartzufim, visit their Facebook fan page. Maybe with enough “Likes” we can get them to come back!


* Google Translate provided the more ominous “Puppet State”. Spooky.

Prime-time patter on Israel’s The Voice

December 29, 2012 by · Leave a Comment

voiceDespite the superficial similarities between Israel and the US, there are times when you’re jolted into the realization that no…. this is not America.

Take prime time TV, for instance – and specifically the non-existence restrictions on Israeli TV for American forbidden fruits like swearing and nudity.

I only have to go back a couple weeks for a prime example of one of the country’s biggest performers – Yuval Banai of the supergroup Mashina – shouting that biggest international curse word out there – “motherf****” on prime time TV during one of the country’s most popular shows – The Voice. And in this bizarre case, it wasn’t an insult, but a compliment.

The Voice, as most of you know, is the reality singing competition that’s gone global since being created in Holland a few years ago. Its premise is slightly different from the other popular singing competition shows like American Idol and The X-Factor in that four celebrity judges/coaches hear a blind audition and have the length of the performance to hit their bell and vie for that contestant during the coaching phase.

The hugely successful US version, entering in its fourth season, features mentors Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton. Shakira and Usher are replacing Aguilera and Green for the fourth season.

The Israeli version debuted last year with singing staples Shlom Shabat, Aviv Geffen, Sarit Hadad and Rami Kleinstein. The first episode was watched by an incredible 1.6 million viewers – almost 25% of the country! The competition was won by Canadian-born immigrant Kathleen Reiter, who is currently recording her first album.

When the second season debuted earlier this month, Kleinstein had been replaced by the duo of Banai, Mashina’s singer, and Shlomi Bracha, the band’s guitarist. Representing the more ‘rocky’ side of the music scene, Banai has brought some edginess to the show, especially his particularly playful repartee with Geffen, once considered the bad boy of Israeli rock.

Maybe that’s why Banai had to prove his outlaw credentials, when one of the contestants – an immigrant from Los Angeles – proved worthy enough for both Banai and Geffen to compete for his favors and choose them as his mentor. Banai, perhaps, wanting to impress the contestant with his English – especially after Geffen had told the tryout how much he loved LA, he understood the music scene there, etc.. – that he blurted out how great the audition was. “Mother f******!” he yelled, in the supreme compliment for someone knocking it out of the park.

No bleep, no gasps, just laughter and cheers from the audience and the other judges.
I laughed too, wondering what would have happened if Steven Tyler had tried that – probably one of his favorite words – to describe one of the contestants on American Idol. It would have been front page news the next day. I kind of prefer our response – we have bigger things to worry about.

Foto Friday – Crowdfunding Kaleidescope

December 28, 2012 by · Leave a Comment

Among many other titles, 2012 can definitely be called “The Year of Crowdfunding”. Last year crowdfunding raised $1.2 billion, according to the Crowd Funding Industry Report for 2011 published by crowdsourcing.org, and the number is expected to be double for 2012.

Crowdfunding, (alternately crowd funding, crowd financing, equity crowdfunding, or hyper funding), according to Wikipedia, “describes the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their money, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations.

“Crowd funding is used in support of a wide variety of activities, including disaster relief, citizen journalism, support of artists by fans, political campaigns, startup company funding, movie or free software development, inventions development and scientific research.”

Artistic endeavors are a main beneficiary of the trend. A recent New York Times article reported that Kickstarter.com has raised over $38 million in the last three years for music-related projects. 17 films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival raised funds via Kickstarter, which has also become — according to no less an authority than Publisher’s Weekly — one of the top 5 indie comic book publishers in America… without even being a publisher.

On a local note, a comic book Haggadah project by Israel’s own Dry Bones by Yaakov Kirschen was oversubscribed on Kickstarter to the tune of $20,000-plus.

2012 was also the year that collective micro-financing reached a tipping point and went global with sites sprouting up all over the globe. Could Israel be far behind?

No, of course not. Enter Start*ART, Israel’s own crowdfunding platform for art and art-related projects, including Kaleidescope Press, whose publisher, photographer Yigal Feliks, is seeking NIS 20,000 for a series of album-quality books of works by some of Israel’s most respected photographers: Yosaif Cohain, Igael Shemtov, Orit Siman-Tov and Feliks himself (click to view video).

Cohain co-founded the photography department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and was the first Israeli photographer to exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1978. The planned book, entitled “Yuval”, will feature 88 black and white panoramic photos from that show.

Shemtov’s work has been collected by museums in Israel and abroad. His “Photographs 1979-1980″ will be a two-volume set depicting an Israel that has all but disappeared.

Siman-Tov’s “What surrounds us” will present 66 images of Israelis and what they do during their leisure time.

As in all other crowdfunding sites, backers can make pledges both large and small, in return for gifts. NIS 10 backers become part of the Kaleidescope community, NIS 50 backers will receive a 10% discount on two Kaleidescope book purchases, NIS 100 get 10% off on five books plus a HD digital book. NIS 170 pledgers will receive a copy of the 18-page volume about the capital city’s downtown scene, “Jerusalem Performance” by Yigal, Feliks, the 10% discount on 5 books plus an invitation to the celebratory book launch where they can pick up their gifts.*

NIS 270 provides backers with a signed copy of the book “1;2;443″ by Yigal Feliks plus launch invitation. The book — named for the highways connecting Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa — presents 52 images from Feliks’ explorations on and around central Israel.

Yigal-Feliks

NIS 340 backers will receive a copy of the book “Yuval” by photographer Yosaif Cohain plus launch invitation, NIS 480 backers will receive a copy of the two-volume book “Photographs 1979-1980″ by photographer Igael Shemtov plus launch invitation, NIS 700 gives pledgers a choice of three out of the five volumes to be published, plus the invite.

Those giving NIS 1260 will receive signed copies of all five volumes plus launch invitation, NIS 1500 backers will be given the signed five volumes along with a 26cm x 40cm size museum-quality numbered photographic print, plus invite. NIS 2500 offers donors the signed five volumes along with a 36cm x 55cm size museum-quality numbered photographic print, plus invite. And NIS 5000 donors get the whole store: signed five volumes, a large-size 50cm x 75cm size museum-quality numbered photographic print, plus the invitation to the book launch.

For anyone who loves and/or collects Israeli photography, this is a wonderful and relatively low-cost opportunity to get involved with the Israeli art scene. The Kaleidescope Press project closes on January 26 so don’t delay — crowdfund today!


* In all cases, shipment will bear an additional charge for postage and handling.


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