Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Solar Dreams

Last I wrote, I was in a bit of a low. I suppose the nadir was my 30th birthday party, when all 15 of my guests canceled within 24 hours. At the time, I decided it was time to put some forward movement into my life, to get a job, and now I've got one.
I'm working for a Jerusalem-based company which develops solar-thermal power stations. The technology was developed by a now defunct Israeli company called Luz, named for the biblical city where the Jacob had his dream of angels ascending and descending a great ladder (Breishit/Genesis 28:10-15,) which he then renamed Beit El. Back in the 1980's, Luz developed a system for generating power by using parabolic-shaped troughs to concentrate sunlight onto a black pipe.

This collector tracks the sun on its path across the sky throughout the day.

Oil pumped through this pipe is superheated by the concentrated sunlight. The superheated oil is then used to boil water and run a steam turbine generator.

Solar Thermal Collector Array with steam power plant

In 1991, after building several solar-thermal power plants in California's Mojave Desert, Luz went out of business. The failure boils down to an end of tax credits for renewable energy and the falling energy costs of the 90's and early 00's. Now high energy costs and increased tax incentives in Europe and California have revived interest in renewables. Another factor is the worldwide panic over global warming. While neither I nor any scientist or engineer with whom I have discussed the issue over the past 8 years actually believes that there is validity to climate change theory, the enormity of the popular panic, especially among those who were swept into office in the United States earlier this month, will have some fringe benefits. Because solar technology results in zero emissions, if the cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions championed by President Elect Obama is actually passed into law, then there's going to be bonanza of renewable energy projects. To my mind, this can have only positive results. When Iran buys Uranium centrifuges, Russia purchases a new warship to bully its neighbors, Al Quaida finances the training of its next pilot, or a Palestinian Authority "activist" buys C4 explosive to incinerate innocent Israelis, the money that finances this evil can always be traced back to oil. Even from a purely economic standpoint, I think it would be fair to place a heavy tariff on fossil fuels to balance out the lives and treasure lost fighting wars to secure them.

While America is still waiting for some sort of renewable energy program, the Spanish government has commissioned the construction of forty 50-MegaWatt facilities in various locations throughout southern Spain. The deal is that if the facilities are online before the end of 2010 then the Spanish government has agreed to purchase power at a favorable rate for the next several years, which will make the construction economically feasible.
Solar collector arrays like this one have been operating in the Mojave Desert for decades

Meanwhile, the original members of the Luz team have reassembled into several competing companies. One of them, Solel, has stepped up manufacturing of parabolic troughs in the expectation of increased orders.
Most of the engineers from Luz reassembled to form the company Luz II, which is persuing the solar tower concept whereby a series of mirrors tracks the sun and concentrates the sunlight onto a boiler, which is used to generate steam and run a steam-power cycle. Their technology has great promise, in that it does not require sunlight to heat oil, which then heats water, but boils the water directly, resulting in greatly increased efficiency. Of course, their technology has never been tested in the real world, but they are in the beginning stages of designing an enormous facility for Southern California.
A Solar-Thermal Tower
As opposed to Luz II, with its hundred plus engineers, I'm working with a team of 9. We are very much a startup, and are focused on fulfilling the Spanish government's contracts with the more proven parabolic trough technology developed by Luz. On the one hand, working for a startup carries some risk, in that things can go downhill in a hurry. On the other hand, being in such a small company provides an opportunity for much more rapid advancement. Unlike a big engineering firm with layer after layer of bureocracy and waste, with corner offices and reserved parking spots, I get to talk with my CEO every day.
I do miss the hours of yeshivah learning I used to be able to do every morning, but I'm also enjoying the fast-paced startup atmosphere. We're located in Har Hotzvim, Jerusalem's business park, probably the only economically productive neighborhood in the city, with dozens of high-tech companies. There are kosher places for breakfast, lunch, and dinner all over the place, and I get to meet other young professionals from neighboring companies and listen to them complain about their bosses. There's also a shul (synagogue) across the street where I can catch daily prayers, and a few shiurim (Jewish learning opportuinities) as well.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Only In Israel

Only in Israel do you go to Ikea, pronounced "eekya,"...
... to find a fully-functional shul inside!

Not only that, the Sweedish meatball cafeteria was fully kosher. If I had a house of my own and didn't care about quality furniture, I would live in this place! I only wish I had discovered it before I bought all the stuff for my apartment when I first made aliyah.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Election Day

Supporters of various parties and candidates set up tables and banners near the entrance of a local Pisgat Zeev polling station.
Yesterday, I was off to cast my vote. In Israel, the government sends you a little card with the address of your polling place, usually a local school, and a poll number, and you take it with you to show at the door. My official address, as far as the government is concerned, is still my cousins' place in Pisgat Zeev where I lived when I first made aliyah. Unfortunately, my card got lost in the bureaucracy and I never received it. I called the tol-free 1-800 number that lets you enter in your identity card number and then responds with the polling location. Busy. I tried again and again over the last 48 hours before the polls opened, but it was busy the whole time. So someone from Nefesh B'Nefesh said, "Why not just find out where your cousins are supposed to go and then go there. You all have the same address so it should be the same place."
So I called my cousins, went to the site, and waited while they checked the list. Of course, I wasn't on. Meanwhile, I bumped into my old friend Tzvi at the entrance.

"Don't speak, do! Arcadi Gaydamak for Mayor"

"Hey," I asked him, "who you voting for?"
"I'm casting a blank ballot."
"You came all the way back here from work during your lunch hour to cast a blank ballot?"
"I want 'em to KNOW I don't like 'em."

"The Hope! Nir Barkat for Mayor"
The polling people couldn't find my name on the list, so they gave me a number in the Jerusalem municipality to call. The municipality gave me the number of the elections division. The elections division told me to call this guy named Avner Cohen and gave me his number. Avner told me to call the interior ministry, who then referred me to the Jerusalem branch. Finally, I received my polling address and poll number. It in a different part of Pisgat Zeev, so it was back to my car to ride across town.

A poster for Meir Porush, referring to the exodus of Israelis leaving municipal Jerusalem for the more affordable outer settlements, "100,000 new residents," and below, a cartoon of Porush, with "Jerusalem will love Porush"

Polling is much more effective here. The poll is in a classroom. Only one voter is permitted in the room at a time, and you are carefully watched by elections officials and representatives of the parties on the ballots. I went in and was asked for the voter card which I immediately told them I hadn't received. From their nonchalance, it seemed that this is the sort of thing that happens all the time. They checked me off the list, and I went behind a cardboard screen. Picked one yellow card for my choice for mayor, and one white card for my party choice for city council. Stuffed them in the envelopes, walked around and dropped them in the ballot box. It's a much more effective system than in America. No hanging chads or guessing at the voters' intent here.

Ballot Slips

A Barkat supporter walks around an intersection passing out flyers while keeping an eye on his campaign posters.

Israeli elections are also see much more involvement. Every street corner is plastered with signs, and activists with walkie-talkies stand guard over their respective candidates' signs. Slogans blasted over loudspeaker from passing cars, flags, activists and candidates shaking my hand. It was like a big party.

Meir Porush supporters got out of school early to guard campaign posters.

Meir Porush's little helpers

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What's happening in Jerusalem? Elections!

Israel's first Hareidi (aka Ultra-Orthodox) mayor, Uri Lupolianski, nicknamed "Loopy," is facing mandatory retirement due to a rotation agreement between the Lithuanian and Chassidic branches of the Hareidi party, United Torah Judaism. To replace him, three candidates have joined in the running.

In last place:

Arcadi Gaydamak

Aliyah isn't just for refugees any more. Plenty of wealthy Anglos have made a home in the holy city, and over the last several years, with the sky-high Euro, rising anti-Semitism in Europe, a wave of French immigrants have arrived as well. Now, even a Russian oligarch has seen the wisdom of living in Israel. Wanted on illegal weapons smuggling and tax evasion charges in France, Gadyamak has been in Israel since the 1990's, and makes his base amongst the Russian immigrants who came at that time. He's spent the recent years digging from his deep pockets to sponsor hospitals, children's homes, and social welfare programs. Still, in a capital city whose voting population is about a third secular, a third national-religious, and a third Hareidi, there is no natural block of voters for a candidate who can barely speak Hebrew and English, and addresses crowds through an interpreter. He seems to be polling well amongst the two non-Jewish demographics; the Russians and the Arabs, but over all, he's still at the bottom of the pack.

Then there are the two front-runners:

Meir Porush

He's being called a scion of a 10th generation Jerusalemite family. (Can someone tell me what a scion is?) As United Torah Judaism's new candidate for mayor, without lifting a finger he already has an automatic voting block of one third of the city. While most Hareidim are personally politically apathetic, their rabbinic leadership always coalesces around a candidate, and these rabbinic endorsements result in turnouts in the Hareidi sector of over 90%, and of almost 100% voting for the endorsed candidate. Porush was recently caught on tape saying, in Yiddish to his supporters, that as the it would be difficult for a non-religious candidate for mayor to ever win in Jerusalem again. Of course the tape was translated and rebroadcast ad nauseum by Israel's anti-religious media, but his point was that on demographics of the city. With Hareidi families having ten to fifteen children and secular families having two or three, in the future secular candidates will not be viable.

Nir Barkat

On the opposite end, there's Nir Barkat. Semi-balding and bare-headed (secular,) at first, Barkat is eerily reminiscent of the previous mayor of Jerusalem, current failed and soon-to-be-indicted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Posters have threatened that, just as Olmert made a 180 degree turn and began advocating a retreat from East Jerusalem once he was promoted from Jerusalem Mayor to Israeli Prime Minister, so too might another secular mayor like Barkat. Some of the bumper stickers reading, "No faith in Barkat ," play off these fears of his lack principle due to his lack of religiosity. I don't buy it. United Torah Judaism was as complicit in the Oslo negotiations with the PLO in the 1990's as were the secular parties. They therefore bear as much responsibility for the grotesque acts violence and terror which subsequently rocked the country, and trying to smear Barkat with Oslo just because he's not religious doesn't pan out in my book

Barkat is no Olmert. He actually made his millions as a high tech entrepreneur, and has spent five years on the city council, unlike Olmert who inherited his position from his position from his father, who was a hero of the resistance to the British and later became a hawkish politician. Barkat has also been actively courting the Anglophonic and National Religious demographics, both of which I belong to. His positions are focused on constructive action, and he favors the rebuilding of Jewish life in East Jerusalem, a topic dear to my heart.

I'll be voting Barkat, if for no other reason than he's the first candidate to make an active appeal for my vote and doesn't assume it's coming his way as a matter of course. Also, he was once a fully-functional, successful human being outside of the corrupt Israeli political establishment, with no investigations or arrest warrants outstanding, which is more than can be said for many Israeli politicians.

As for how the rest of Jerusalem votes, it's up in the air. Despite polling which would indicate Barkat being far in the lead over Porush, the 90% turnout among Hareidim gives Porush a hefty boost beyond what polls might indicate. So it's going to be close, and I'd better get off to the polls.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Three Elections

I have suddenly been thrust out of obscurity.  Being an American citizen, I can vote in the American presidential elections.  As a resident of Jersualem, I get to vote for the new mayor and city council next week.  Meanwhile, the Israeli national government just fell, and the Prime Minister's unelected replacement, Tzippi Livni, lacked the political skill to build a coalition of her own and now we're going to new Israeli national elections at the beginning of next year. 
The U.S. elections are probably the most worrisome, and with the U.S. wielding a virtual veto over Israel's foreign and domestic policy, there's a great deal of concern in this neck of the woods about the new face coming to the white house.
Of course, this whole election is about Obama, the other presidential and vice-presidential candidates being treated as stage props.  Among the rumors circulating are those of his Islamic upbringing, but that doesn't bother me.  After all, with a Muslim father, according to Islam, he is automatically a Muslim himself, and his nominal acceptance of Christianity carries the death penalty in his father's religion.  This might cause him some difficulty in the fundamentalist Islamic regimes like Iran he threatens to befriend.  There is also concern over his race, as previous black politicians have toted grievance-mongering anti-Semitism, like Jesse Jackson wanting to destroy Israel or Al Sharpton calling for a boycott of Jewish businesses, but I don't think Obama is an anti-Semite.  At least not beyond the fact that his liberal ideology itself, with its belief in a nonracial, irreligious, classless, genderless society is hostile to Judaism's approach of separation between Jews and Goyim, women and men, secular and holy. 
There is great fear of Obama in Israel, partly because of his middle name, and partly because violent terrorism against Israeli Jews has become the latest pet cause of the European states among whom he would like to, "Restore America's image."    His assembling a team of America's premier Israel-haters as Middle East advisors is cause for grave concern.  Given his complete lack of experience, he will likely absorb their politically correct but historically twisted view of the Arabs' century-long Jihad against Jewish emancipation in the holy land as some sort of struggle for Palestinian civil rights.  Even Condoleezza Rice referred to Israel's life-saving checkpoints as reminiscent of the Jim Crow with which she grew up.
McCain, on the other hand, is no savior.  His positions on negotiations with Iran, the creation of a Palestinian State carved out of Israel's bosom, and other issues of regional concern have recently flipped to being reassuringly conservative.  However, the fact that he held views similar to Obama's before he began running for the highest office indicates that he may pitch a steadfast line, but his heart isn't in it.  His failure to run a coherent campaign and his selection of a running mate with almost as little experience as his opponent is hardly inspiring.  Still, as a person having faced true evil in his past, once subjected to the daily intelligence briefings and being confronted with the depravity of the regional regimes, one would hope that at least some sense of moral clarity would seep in. 
By contrast, given the people whom Obama has befriended in the past, having relations with Hamas bus-bombers or Iranian hate-mongers probably wouldn't be such a novel experience for him.  Perhaps Obama is divine punishment to the Jews for some sort of misbehavior.  Of course, I remember, eight years ago, writing that G.W. Bush would be, like his father, a Country Club Republican, sneering and hostile to Israel.  Boy did I have him pegged wrong!  Maybe I've got Obama all wrong too, and he will completely break with the views of his friends and advisors to become a truly noble person.
Based on social positions, and my gut, I have to go with McCain, even though the polls indicate Obama will almost certainly win.  Still, as a person who believes in the unseen hand of the Creator directing events, I am not all that entranced by politicians.  I don't find McCain or Obama, "scary," like some, because I don't see them as being particularly powerful in the long run.  A truly powerful person is one who has mastered his ego and can exercise control of his appetites, which pretty much eliminates politicians by definition.  As for me, all that's left for me to do is fax in my absentee ballot and try to live a decent life, come what may.