Friday 18 June 2010

Are Your Texts Depressed? The Computer Knows, Maybe


WIRED CAMPUS June 18, 2010

By Matthew Kalman

Software may know when you are depressed by examining your online behavior. Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba, Israel, have developed a program that can detect depression in online texts and could serve as a screening tool to direct potential patients towards treatment. Psychologists caution, however, that it hasn't actually been tested on real people.

Yair Neuman, associate professor in the department of education at Ben-Gurion, led a team that developed a computer program capable of identifying language with signs of depression. In a test, the program was used to scan more than 300,000 English-language texts from blogs and from online queries that people posted to mental-health Web sites. After the program identified the texts as depressive, a panel of four clinical psychologists reviewed 200 examples of such writings. There was a 78-percent correlation between the verdict of the computer program and the analysis of the human panel.

Mr. Neuman said the program was designed to find depressive content hidden in language that did not mention obvious terms like “depression” or “suicide.” He suggested that the program could be used to carry out initial screening on texts written by people who didn’t even realize they might have a problem.

“The problem is that most people are not aware of their situation and they will never get to an expert psychologist,” says Mr. Neuman. “The system can provide a screening process that will raise the awareness of the depressed and will send them to an expert because we cannot actually replace excellent human judgment.”

“What we can do is to provide a very efficient tool for screening for depression. In the United States, for instance, there is a huge problem of people suffering from depression and they are not diagnosed. The usual screening procedure is a questionnaire you should fill in online, but it is a self-selective process," he says, noting that people who fill out such a survey already suspect they have a problem. "What we can do is to analyze proactively, and this is the difference." Web sites focusing on consumer mental health might install the tool, and users could see a pop-up warning if the comments they post indicate a depressive pattern.

But those warnings might be false, says one mental-health professional. “Psychiatric diagnosis is a very, very complicated issue,” warns Tuvia Peri, director of the community counseling clinic in the department of psychology at Bar-Ilan University. “You don’t have a very high level of agreement between professionals because the diagnosis of depression is quite vague.”

“There is a long history of trying to determine psychiatric diagnosis by computers, to try to make them efficient and fast," he says. "This is a very small step forward, an important step, but we have texts that were diagnosed by a machine and then we have the same texts diagnosed by clinical psychologists. We don’t have any data about the actual, real state of the people who have written these texts.”

Thursday 17 June 2010

Thursday June 17, 2010

Jew vs. Jew: The Religious Conflict Tearing at Israel


Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested in Jerusalem, Israel against a court order to desegregate a religious school and force Jewish girls of European and Middle Eastern descent to study together. Baz Ratner / Reuters

Israel's domestic culture war between religious communities and the secular courts took to the streets, Thursday, as tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi (European) Jews paralyzed the streets of Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak in a protest march. The target of their outrage was the imprisonment of 43 couples for refusing to allow their daughters to attend a religious school where they would have to mix with the daughters of religious Mizrahi Jews (a term sometimes conflated with Sephardi and referring to those who hail mainly from the Arab world). Dressed in their Sabbath finery of tall fur hats and delicately-embroidered long black silk coats, men bound for prison were carried shoulder high by a dancing, singing throng through the streets of Jerusalem to the city's Russian Compound police headquarters. Some wore a red sash emblazoned with the legend "Holiness for the sake of heaven."

"We are going with gladness in our hearts," said Rabbi Eliahu Biton as he walked towards jail, although 22 of the convicted women and four of the men failed to appear.

The parents at the center of Thursday's drama, followers of Rabbi Shmuel Berzovsky who leads the tiny Slonimer Hasidic sect, chose two weeks in jail rather than send their daughters to the Beis Yaakov school near their homes in the religious West Bank settlement of Emanuel. Their reason? At the school, the Ashkenazi kids would mingle with religious Mizrahi kids, some of whom come from more secular extended families and therefore, say the Slonimers, could expose their sheltered daughters to unwanted influences from the wider world. And their imprisonment was the culmination of a two-year battle between the ultra-Orthodox sect, which effectively controls the school, and Israel's secular Supreme Court. Before the Beis Yaakov controversy, few people had heard of the Slonimer, named for the town in Belarus where their first rabbi lived 200 years ago, and the sect's internal power struggle between rival leaders in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. But the fight over the schoolgirls has united the tiny group and transformed it into the latest torchbearers of a festering feud between the ultra-orthodox and the secular establishment.

Thursday's demonstration was the largest in Jerusalem since ultra-orthodox protesters gathered in similar numbers in 1999 in a show of strength against the supposed anti-religious bias of Israel's Supreme Court. A decade on, the gap between the two entities is wider than ever, with running debates over such issues as the power of religious courts, state subsidies for religious students, religious exemption from military service and access to public roads on the Sabbath.

In August 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that a separate stream created in Beis Yaakov school two years ago for the Slonim amounted to "rampant discrimination" against the rest of the pupils, who are 95% Mizrahi. The court ordered the school, which is financed by the state, to remove the physical barriers and integrate the classes. For six months, the parents defied the court. When the barriers finally came down, 43 families removed their daughters and then sent them to another state-funded school in Bnei Brak, an hour's drive away. But parents are not allowed to move their kids from one school to another in the middle of a school year without permission from the education authorities, and their departure left the Beis Yaakov school with too few kids to be viable.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the parents must return their daughters to the now desegregated school by Thursday or report to jail.

The open defiance of the parents led opposition leader Tzipi Livni to wonder aloud at the future of the rule of law in Israel and the deafening silence of government ministers scared of offending ultra-orthodox parties that hold the balance of power. "I have heard that there is a group of people who have said ahead of time that they refuse to accept a Supreme Court decision," Livni told supporters this week. "There is no room for such declarations in a democratic state. I am not a fan of the Supreme Court's involvement in all issues, but when the political and state leadership does not accept decisions based on the values of the State of Israel, the Supreme Court has no choice."

Aviad Hacohen, the lawyer who filed the Supreme Court petition on behalf of Yoav Lalum, chairman of the Noar Kahalacha association, which battles ethnic discrimination in religious schools, tells TIME that the Slonimer refusal to have their kids attend school with the Mizrahi girls has resulted in the school excluding dozens of Mizrahi girls since last Fall. And, he warns, the problem in Emanuel is the tip of an ultra-orthodox iceberg threatening to sink the rule of law in Israel.

"This can lead to real anarchy," says Hacohen. "I hope the rule of law will prevail, otherwise it won't stop with the ultra-Orthodox and others will do the same. I wish I could tell you the law will win, but I'm not sure."

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Mistreated as a Student, an Alum Establishes Cash Prizes for Nice Professors at Israel's Technion

June 16, 2010

By Matthew Kalman

Jerusalem — What’s an alumnus to do when the university that was the gateway to his entrepreneurial millions was a place of "suffering" where professors "didn’t give a damn about the students"? Moshe Yanai’s answer: Give it millions of dollars to encourage faculty members to be more pleasant.

IBM minces few words when describing the work of Mr. Yanai, who holds one of the computer maker's prestigious fellowships: "One of the most influential contributors in the history of the data-storage industry. His 30 years of technical expertise and design innovation are legendary."

Mr. Yanai attributes his success in no small part to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, from which he graduated in 1975. Now a multimillionaire, he has given quietly to charities for many years, including to the Technion, the academic incubator of Israel’s high-tech revolution. But memories of his bitter experience there discouraged him from doing anything high profile.

Now he has donated enough cash to support 15 prizes annually, each worth $30,000, for the next 20 years. A joint committee of faculty members and students will award the Yanai Prizes to professors who enrich the university experience and make the Technion friendlier to students.

"The Technion gave me my entry ticket to the world of computers, and I owe it much of my success, but my time there was one of suffering," he tells The Chronicle. "My personal experience in the Technion was not because I had difficulties learning but because of my treatment by professors."

While he was a student, Mr. Yanai had a wife and child, a job, and a battalion commander’s post in Israel’s army reserve. He says he got little sympathy from his professors when he asked them for materials after he missed a class.

"The problem in the academic world is that all the incentives are to produce papers," he says. "The publication of papers brings them prestige, promotion, everything. No one is really rewarding them for spending time with students."

Mr. Yanai says he has heard similar stories from other former students, and not just those who attended the Technion.

"I want to change the atmosphere and change the incentives for professors in a way that says the world is not only about papers," he says. "It’s also about teaching students."

Peretz Lavie, president of the institution, took no offense at Mr. Yanai’s accusations. "There is a story among MIT students that halfway across the bridge over the Charles River is a sign saying, 'You are now halfway to hell,'" he says. "There is a kind of halo effect around some institutes that they are tough and demanding, and there is almost a military type of discipline."

The question, Mr. Lavie says, is how to make education a more joyful experience: "Can you think about a type of a class that can make it also fun? Or make it also more interesting? This is the challenge to the teacher."

He says Mr. Yanai’s gift has the potential to transform the university. "These new prizes will change the atmosphere, making our studies in the Technion much more interesting, much more enriching, and changing this reputation of being a rough institute which is not friendly to the students," Mr. Lavie says. "Usually donors go for bricks and mortar."

When Mr. Yanai approached the Technion to discuss how he could help, his own bumpy experience as a student there was the proverbial elephant in the room. Mr. Lavie says the philanthropist told him he wanted to do something to make the campus atmosphere friendlier while preserving its academic rigor.

"This is how this gift was born," Mr. Lavie says. "He jumped at the idea, and he said, 'Let’s try and reward faculty for enriching the educational experience.'"

Monday 14 June 2010

Major Fund-Raising Campaign Ends for Israeli Technology Institute



The American Technion Society announced on Monday that it had completed a $1-billion fund-raising campaign on behalf of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. The campaign started in 1996. “This was the largest campaign ever for an American organization raising funds for Israeli higher education,” said Kevin Hattori, a spokesman for the New York-based society. The largest single donation was $50-million, for the Lorry I. Lokey Interdisciplinary Center for Life Sciences and Engineering. In the 14-year campaign, 61 percent of the gifts were valued at $1-million or more. The funds go to support new buildings, research centers and programs, faculty fellowships, and scholarships. Despite the economic downturn, the campaign, dubbed “Shaping Israel’s Future," was completed just eight months behind schedule.

Israel's First Arabic-Language College Hopes to Bridge Differences in Opportunity


(NAI) View of Nazareth Academic Institution (NAI) in Nazareth, Galilee, Israel

June 14, 2010

By Matthew Kalman
Nazareth, Israel

After a decade-long struggle for official recognition, Israel's first comprehensive Arabic-language college of higher education will open its doors here in October.

The Nazareth Academic Institution will have some 120 students in its first year for a limited selection of courses in chemistry, communications, occupational therapy, and computer science.

From this small beginning, the founders hope it will blossom into the country's first Arab university, provide a peace-building bridge between Israelis and Palestinians, and stem the exodus of thousands of students who study abroad rather than contend with an Israeli system they say deters Arabs, who are one-fifth of the population. They also say it will greatly increase the opportunity for Arab residents, particularly women, to gain the qualifications necessary to join the work force, which would help the economy of the Galilee, where most Israeli Arabs live.

"We are going to create a viable institution that will provide a future for the young people in the Galilee. A multicultural academic center for peace, professional development, and the creation of a responsible, diverse leadership," said Susan Drinan, an American who is a General Electric executive and chairperson of the new college's Board of Trustees.

Critics of the plan say it will further marginalize the Arab minority in Israel; others fear it will become an intellectual hotbed of separatist Palestinian nationalism.

The debate has raged since 2000, when the Israeli government first decided in principle to open a college for Israeli Arabs in the Galilee.

The Mar Elias Educational Institutions, which operates an elementary school and a high school, immediately applied to the Israel Council for Higher Education for a license to operate the college. But the second Palestinian uprising erupted soon after, and the decision was shelved, apparently for political reasons.

Mar Elias, which was established in the Galilee town of Ibillin by the Greek Catholic Church, pursued the plan despite repeated rejections and delays. (In the interim period, it became a licensed branch campus of the University of Indianapolis, graduating more than 200 students, but the Israeli government ended all partnerships in which Israeli entities offer degrees from foreign institutions because of concerns about falling standards.)

Political Hand-Wringing

In 2009 the Israeli government and the Council for Higher Education finally gave Mar Elias their approval to open a new college.

Ramiz Jaraisy, the mayor of Nazareth who has authorized a site for the new college, including a fully equipped library, says the decision is long overdue.

"It's a pity that until now, after more than 60 years since the establishment of the state of Israel, there is not even one academic institution among the Arab minority acting under the auspices of the Council for Higher Education. It should have been implemented a long time ago," said Mr. Jaraisy.

Israel's only other Arabic-language colleges are five segregated teacher-training institutions.

The delays in the project were due to political hand-wringing, he said. "I was involved at least twice in the process of a decision in the Council for Higher Education concerning the establishment of an academic institution among the Arabs in Nazareth, and twice that process was stopped because of political decisions of ministers."

When Israel celebrated the 62nd anniversary of its independence in May 2010, some 1.54 million Arab citizens accounted for 20.4 percent of the total population of 7.58 million. But in the academic year 2007-8, the latest figures available from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, only 11.8 percent of undergraduate students in higher education in Israel were Arabs, falling to 6.6 percent of master's-level students, and just 3.5 percent of doctoral students.

During that period there were some 12,900 Arab students at Israeli colleges and universities and nearly 8,000 more at Arabic-language teacher-training colleges. But as many as 8,500 Arab students are reported to be studying abroad, most of them in Jordan.

"Arab students in Israel don't have an option for higher education in Arabic," said Yousef T. Jabareen, a law lecturer at the University of Haifa and director of Dirasat, the Arab Center for Law and Policy, in Nazareth. "Israel has established so far seven universities that have public funding. However, none of them is in Arabic. Israel does not have an option for higher education in Arabic for about 20 percent of its population."

For Arab students, "I see it as a violation of their right to equality, especially their right to education and their right to preserve their language and their cultural identity," he said.

Mr. Jabareen supports the development of the new college. "We need it to be a good, well-supported Arab university. I believe it could solve many of these problems," he said.

But even after the Council for Higher Education decision, the college may not survive because the accreditation was not accompanied by any of the financial support it had requested from the government.

"There are six colleges in Galilee, five of them are fully funded, all of them in Jewish areas. This is the only one in the Arab sector and the only one that is not funded," said Raed Mualem, senior vice president of the Mar Elias institutions who has pushed the project for the past 10 years. He said the trustees were trying to raise the $2-million necessary to begin operating in the fall, with a strategic plan that requires $150-million over the coming decade.

Steven G. Stav, who served until recently as director general of the Council for Higher Education, said he supported the project despite entrenched opposition to an Arab-oriented college and misgivings among council members about the quality of the teaching.

"We think it is very important for the Galilee that this college starts out and will be a positive donor and contributor to the area," said Mr. Stav.

"There was a question about this college because we do not promote sectorial colleges; we want to have integrated colleges," he said. "We have minorities that need some sort of self-definition in their teaching, but then you run into other difficulties."

Those "other difficulties" are apparently fears that an Arab college would become a hotbed of radicalism.

But Mr. Mualem and his colleagues say the opposite is true.

Peace Studies

"Our teaching staff is one third Christian, one third Jewish, one third Muslim," said Mr. Mualem. "I don't think any of the people we have on staff want to build an institution dedicated to the worldview of terrorists. We are exactly the opposite. One third of the students' program is compulsory peace studies. No matter what they are studying, the first thing they will study is peace, how to live in a multicultural society."

"We can be the bridge between Israel and the Arab world," he continued. "It is in our interest to develop our Israeli identity, but not to forget where we came from."

Arab students agree that the new college would be valuable.

Amani Odeh, a 22-year-old college graduate, said Arab high-school students have a hard time getting into Israeli universities and prefer to go abroad. She earned a degree in chemistry and environmental sciences from Mar Elias and the University of Indianapolis before that arrangement ended.

"Arab students leave for Jordan and other countries abroad to study for medicine, for example, because they can't get the grades," she said. "My cousin went to Italy to study medicine. My neighbor also went to study in Italy. Most of my friends who I finished high school with went to Jordan and other places."

But some Arab academics remain dubious. Fadia Nasser-Abu Alhija, associate professor at Tel Aviv University School of Education, said the existence of the five segregated Arabic-language teacher-training colleges has caused "difficulties" and "deep gaps" between the Jewish and Arab high-school systems.

"I am skeptical about running an Arab university because I am very anxious about the level and the standards of the kind of people who will run this institute," she said. "To maintain the level, I think we have to have equal education."

Thursday 10 June 2010

Egypt Denies Visa to Israeli University Leader



The rector of the University of Haifa has been denied a visa by Egypt, forcing him to cancel plans to go to an academic conference in Alexandria, reports the Ynet news Web site. The rector, Yossi Ben-Artzi, planned to attend the June 11-12 meeting of the Euro-Mediterranean University, but said his visa application had been rejected without explanation. Officials at Egypt's Embassy in Tel Aviv said that his request had not been denied deliberately and that it may have been a "technical mishap." In May, Uri Seligsohn, a professor of hematology at Tel Aviv University and governor of the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis, was denied a visa to attend a meeting of the society in Cairo that he had helped organize.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Gaza's Shadow Economy Plods On

Friday, Jun. 04, 2010

A Palestinian smuggler exits a tunnel that runs between Egypt and Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on June 3, 2010 Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images


Days after the Israeli seizure of a flotilla of Turkish ships bound for Gaza that left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead and triggered worldwide condemnation, activists aboard an Irish-flagged aid vessel are bracing for the next round, while Israelis debate how to solve the problem. The 1,200-ton Rachel Corrie, named for the pro-Palestinian American activist who was killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer, is heading south from Cyprus through the Mediterranean with a cargo of aid and banned building materials for the Hamas-controlled enclave.

Israeli leaders still stunned by the fallout from the May 31 flotilla raid are determined to stop the Rachel Corrie as well as not cause any more deaths that will hand Hamas and its supporters another p.r. victory. "We shall not allow the ships to reach Gaza — not now and not later on," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his ministers. "We intend to direct the Rachel Corrie ship to the Ashdod port and transfer its civilian goods to Gaza following a security check." (See pictures of Israeli commandos storming the Turkish ships.)

Palestinians in Gaza eagerly awaited the drama unfolding off the coastline, hailing the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish group IHH — which allegedly has jihadist sympathies — as heroes, with street marches and banners fluttering from buildings close to the tiny Gaza City port. The excitement is a change from the daily grind of survival, which can take many forms in the enclave's shadowy economy.

Every day, a long line of Palestinians queues outside the USAID distribution center in Beit Lahiya, north of Gaza City. Thursday was the turn of families with nine or more children; they have been issued with the relevant papers, allowing them to collect 3 kg of salt, 12 kg of sugar, 12 kg of beans, 16 L of olive oil and four 50-kg sacks of wheat flour. After 40 days, they will return for more. "The proportion of the population dependent on aid has risen to 80%, the number of the poorest of the poor has risen from 100,000 to 300,000 in the past year alone, and unemployment has reached 44%," says Chris Gunness, spokesman for UNRWA, the U.N. body that has been assisting Palestinian refugees since 1949. "How can anyone say there isn't a humanitarian crisis?"

At the Islamic University in Gaza City, two buildings on the campus are still in ruins nearly 18 months after they were bombed flat by Israeli jets during the war that ended in January 2009. Israel said the university's technology labs were being used for research and development to improve the 8,000 Qassam rockets that have been fired across the border since April 2001 — a charge the university flatly denies. University president Kamalain Sha'ath needs $50 million to rebuild the wrecked labs and replace damaged equipment, but Israel will not even let him bring in any building materials. (See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.)

Sha'ath continues to educate his 21,000 students, but he knows their chances of employment are slim. Last year, there were 20,000 applications for 2,700 teaching jobs advertised by the Ministry of Education and 1,700 applications for 50 English-language teaching positions at UNRWA. "The economy of Gaza cannot generate the number of jobs required for all of these people. With the blockade, it became more and more complicated," Sha'ath tells TIME.

The Israeli and Egyptian blockade was imposed in earnest after Hamas, the Islamist militant organization that came to power in parliamentary elections in January 2006, won control of Gaza and its population of 1.4 million in July 2007 after a vicious Palestinian civil war. The blockade was supposed to persuade Gazans to topple the Hamas government; secure the release of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was abducted in June 2006; and end the firing of Qassam and other rockets across the border. None of those objectives has been achieved.

See the diplomatic fallout from the Gaza flotilla fiasco.

Israeli officials say the blockade must remain in place to stop Hamas from being supplied with rockets and other heavy weaponry by their allies in Hizballah and Iran. They reject the charge that they have plunged Gaza into poverty and food dependency, pointing to the first three months of 2010 that saw 3,828 trucks carry more than 95,500 tons of goods into the Gaza Strip, including food, medical supplies, wheat, rice, clothes, footwear, milk powder and baby food. Just days before the flotilla fiasco, the press office of Netanyahu sarcastically recommended the fine-dining restaurant Roots to foreign reporters sent over to chronicle humanitarian conditions. And indeed, in Gaza City, white-coated waiters do serve expensive meals at Roots. The beef Stroganoff has been unofficially dubbed "Bibi Stroganoff."

But much of the commerce that has managed to survive the blockade operates with rather shadowy mechanisms. At the small grocery run by Hani Abu Fadi in a refugee camp south of Gaza City, the shelves are stocked full of goods, from basic foodstuffs to chocolates. Many of the tins are Egyptian, but Hebrew packaging indicates that some items have been imported from Israel, including fresh milk and washing powder. Abu Fadi says prices have fallen by about one-third on some items in the past year. "There is no shortage of food; there are even stockpiles," he says. "I assume the wholesalers who used to work with the Israeli border crossings are now bringing their supplies through the [smugglers'] tunnels, but I don't ask." (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

Down in the town of Rafah on the border with Egypt, a makeshift hut constructed from blue nylon sheeting nailed onto a frame covers the mouth of a smuggling tunnel underneath the frontier. A man who identifies himself only as Abu Ahmed dug his tunnel two years ago on the site of a destroyed house that he bought from the previous owner. It is 25 yards deep and half a mile in length. It took six months to build and is connected by cross-passages to five or six neighboring tunnels in case of emergency. He descends by rope down a 4-ft. square vertical shaft lined with wood to a passage that emerges in a gentle slope inside a building on the other side of the border. There is an emergency generator for electricity and a compressor to pump air through. "I bring in everything, but nothing that is illegal," he says. "From food and motorcycles to animals. I once brought in two lions for the zoo — small ones."

Abu Ahmed says that in a good month, he can make $300,000. His only tax was a one-off payment of about $2,500 to Rafah Municipality for electricity. A qualified doctor at a nearby hospital earns just $900 a month. Gazans are concerned that the new elite of tunnel smugglers have a vested interest in continuing the siege. (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)

A poll conducted in March indicated that Palestinians were becoming fed up with Hamas: 37% of Gazans told the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion that they trusted the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to govern, while only 22% said they preferred Hamas. But with the actions against the aid flotilla last week, Israel may have inadvertently thrown the Hamas government a lifeline. "What happened this last week was a surprise for everybody," says Omar Shaban, president of PalThink, a Gaza-based strategic studies think tank.

Shaban says Israel's seizure of the flotilla brought the situation in Gaza to world attention and may trigger enough pressure on Israel to end its blockade. "The Gaza issue is totally different after the ships than before the ships. It's like a political tsunami, whether you support Hamas or not," he says.