Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are you being followed?

Last week, a friend of mine stopped at a tyre outlet for a routine tyre-swap on his car. When he returned to his vehicle, he immediately noticed that his iPad was gone from the passenger seat, where he thought he had left it. Unconcerned, and figuring he may have moved it unwittingly and forgotten where he'd put it, he flipped on his iPhone and launched the "Find my iPad" app. The GPS-based programme quickly indicated that his iPad was on the move. My friend jumped into his car, chased his iPad and soon caught up with it, in someone else's car. Can you imagine the thief's surprise when the iPad's owner arrived at his car-window, discovered the iPad that he'd been sitting on and demanded an explanation? He couldn't fathom what had blown his cover.

I've recently noticed a slew of news stories about laptop thieves getting bust by the computer's owners remotely activating their laptop's camera to expose the thief. Either GPS or IP-logon tracking then allow the cops to know who to apprehend and where. 

George Orwell's "Big brother" is coming to life. In 1949, when he wrote the classic, people could conceive of a dominating regime that would spie on its citizens. But, could they have envisaged a world where everyone tracks everyone? Even Orwell could not have imagined the ever-exposed world of reality TV, paparazzi and social networking. Neither did he imagine a world of satellite tracking or a personal digital history. In his day there was no technology that could have recorded billions of people's movements. The sheer manpower needed to implement Thought Police would have, in reality, been prohibitive. 

Logically, a super-snooper society would have had to focus its attention on "people of interest", potential revolutionaries, insurgents, terrorists or criminals. Essentially, the CIA, Mossad or KGB did just that. They honed their skill, technology and personnel on tracking "valuable" targets. Tabloid media focused their time and attention on politicians, celebs, tycoons and socialites. And the ordinary person remained anonymous.

As Thomas Carlyle noted, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men". Or, at least, interesting people.

Not anymore. You no longer need to be someone significant to have your life tracked. Your phone, your car's GPS, online travel plans, Twitter, Facebook, Google searching  and a dozen other technologies ensure that your activities are recorded. Some experts even warn that people may one day want to create a new personal identity to escape their embarrassing online activity as youngsters. That's how it is nowadays. You probably don't even realise it, but just about everything that you do is recorded somewhere in the great digital cloud. It could come back to bite you at any time.

2000 years ago, the Talmudic sages already knew this. Ok, they didn't have Internet, credit card trails or GPS, but they did know that the Great Database In The Heavens records every move each of us makes. It's all stored on a server that never crashes. 

One day, G-d will tap on your window and confront whatever secrets you're sitting on. Make sure your record looks good, or you may be as flummoxed as the fellow who stole my friend's iPad and is still wondering how on earth he traced him.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

It all depends on how you see it

Life depends on how you see it. Even if f that sounds daunting, it is an extremely valuable concept to keep in mind. The way you see your life quite literally defines how it will pan out.

Take as an example one of Jewish history's greatest disasters, the debacle of the spies sent by the Israelites to the Promised Land. We all know, and will review this Shabbos, how the spies (except for Joshua and Caleb) reported that the Jewish nation would never reach the Promised Land. The nation quickly bought into their gloomy prognosis ("oy vey" is the Jewish way) and cried bitterly over what they believed could only be a suicidal attempt to settle the Land.

What set off the spies' fears was what they witnessed while scouting the country. Each time the spies entered a city, they saw a large funeral procession. Quickly, the reconnoisance team concluded the "obvious": This is a land where people die. In their report to the nation they would describe Israel as "a land that eats up its inhabitants". That was enough to unseat the people completely. Just about everybody bewailed their terrible fate and demanded a return to Egypt. And G-d responded with the parental, "If you cry for no good reason, I'll give you a reason to cry". Every complainer would die before he could reach the Promised Land. And the eve of crying went down in history as the dreaded Ninth of Av, anniversary of almost every significant Jewish tragedy.

Ironically, what the spies interpreted as disaster was actually G-d's plan to keep them safe while on their mission. He had decided to distract the population of each town with the death of one of its prominent citizens. Everyone would be so caught up in the formalities of burying these people that they wouldn't cast a glance in the spies' direction. G-d envisaged keeping the spies alive and safe. The spies saw death.

It's easy to keep a rosy outlook when things proceed according to plan. When they teeter (G-d forbid)- health issues, financial stress or family crises- we slip into "gloomy forecast". We seem to need a secret switch to flip us back into the optimistic approach. How do you look confidentally at bleak predictions?

One man quieted the tumult long enough to get his message across. Caleb, himself one of the spies, watched the growing mob-despair and realised that nobody could wedge a rational word in anywhere. Instead, he announced: "Oh, so do you think that this is all that Moshe did to us?" The crowds paused long enough to hear what they expected to be more fuel for their fury. "He also," continued Caleb, "Took us out of Egypt, split the sea and provided Manna for us in the desert." In a single sentence, he had changed perspective. He had reminded the people that Moshe had, with G-d's help, gotten them out of a slew of sticky situations. He had previously proven his worth and could be relied upon to pull them through their next challenge.

Caleb knew how to flip the optimisim switch. What he told the Jews in the desert applies equally to us. We can all identify moments in our lives that "went right". A fortuitous business meeting, a "chance" medical checkup that saved a life or simply a time when we found a convenient parking space is a moment in our lives where G-d came through for us. It is healthy to review these events from time to time, just to remind ourselves who's Boss, that He knows what He's doing and that He delivers. Remember those moments and it becomes much easier to imagine that what is still to come will be OK too. 

We choose how to see what has happened in our lives. We choose to see how things will happen in our lives. Whatever perspective we choose, it defines our lives.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Are you getting your tattoo tomorrow?

Do you plan to get a tattoo?

A few weeks ago, I popped into a nearby quick-shop to buy a bottle of water. As I stood on line waiting to pay, I read the neck of the person in  front of me. 

Yes, his neck. 

In bold, calligraphic letters, this fellow had tattooed the Shema on the nape of his neck. I got the sense that he was stretching and flexing especially for me to see. He was doing a sort of "Hey! Rabbi, do see my Jewish pride?" number. Tattoos aren't kosher, but there is no doubt that his was intended to celebrate, not undermine Judaism. 

I've since shared this story with a few people and have discovered that Hebrew/ Torah tattoos are quite popular. I'm told there are even some celebs who sport Hebrew on their bodies. I'm told that a very proud local Jew has had a Magen David emblazoned over his heart, to show his love for Yiddishkeit. Would I do it? No. But, those graffitied Jews make a you think.

Torah is classically presented as ink on parchment; be it a book or the sacred Torah scroll. Ink and paper/ parchment remain two separate entities (the ink + paper) that combine to create a document. You could chemically remove the ink, which proves that the ink and the paper remain separate. They say you can remove a tattoo using laser, but there's no question that body-art is more permanent than ink on paper. My "friend with the Shema on his neck" has etched its message on his person more indelibly than most Jews I know.

Tomorrow is Shavuot, the day G-d gave us- and gives us again- His Torah. When G-d gives the Torah, it's not the ink-on-paper type; it's the etched into stone version. On this holiday, He empowers to engrave His message onto our souls. All you need to do is get to Shul to hear the Ten Commandments tomorrow. You arrive and G-d brands you with His message.

So, are you going to get yourself a tattoo tomorrow?