Uber Night #2: Weddings, drinking, and casual racism

Not in equal parts, mind you… Long story short, I had a couple of fares tonight that were attending weddings in SD, a bunch of folks who were partying (very typical Uber crowd, that), and…

The fare that turned out to be my last of the night, though, was something special. In the Gaslamp District, I pick up a young black man, already quite drunk by the time he ordered the ride, along with a couple of friends. He initially directed me to go to Pacific Beach, but had plenty of time to think about it while we sat in heavier-than-usual Gaslamp traffic (holiday weekend plus the Padres were in town). In the ensuing discussion with his buddies in the back seat (he was sitting in the passenger seat up front), the possibility came up of staying in the area and going to one of the clubs that has a cover charge. Our hero, Karl, asked if one friend would pay the cover for him because Karl covered the cab. When the friend said no, Karl said “Don’t Jew me.” And he kept saying it, in different and increasingly nasty ways (including “You’re so Jewish”), as the conversation continues. After a couple of times, I made some sort of “Seriously, dude?” remark, at which point the guy sitting directly behind me noticed my kippah. He tried to clue Karl in, but our hero was on a roll.

I took this all in with a big smile, totally laughing it off and wondering how long it’d take before Karl realized how far his foot was in his mouth, and it did take him a bit longer, even after the friend in the back told him to look at my head.

He finally did, and I cracked up and said, “There’s no way I’m not getting five stars from you now, no matter WHAT I do… I could punch you in the face and you’d still have to give me five stars.”

The awkwardness finally became too much to bear and they decided to get out and go somewhere local after just a couple of blocks. Karl basically sprinted away from my car, perhaps to try and give his shame the slip.

The thing is, I’m sure Karl is a decent guy. Using “Jew” as a synonym for “stingy” or “cheap” is something he probably grew up hearing, and he never got called on it before. I like to think that the teaching moment I took advantage of will stick. When his friend said, “The driver is Jewish,” I said to Karl, “Doesn’t matter whether I’m Jewish or not, saying that is really nasty.”

Maybe Karl will break the cycle he was born into.

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The Israel Conference in LA

I attended the Israel Conference in LA this past Thursday (it continued into Friday but I had other commitments), and wrote up this reflection for publication. I’ll be doing reviews of several of the startups that exhibited there in the coming days and weeks, and, as referenced below, I’ll also be reviewing The Unstoppables, a new book on entrepreneurship that heavily draws on the Israeli startup spirit and culture (the book’s author, Bill Schley, and Graham Weston, who wrote the foreword, spoke on a panel at the Conference, hence the connection).

***
There’s some inherent risk to getting any group of hundreds of people together for a conference at a boutique hotel in Los Angeles. All sorts of logistical snafus could arise with the meeting spaces, Internet connectivity might be slow, traffic could of course be a problem, causing speakers or vendors to be late to their sessions, and on and on. But make this a gathering of people who tend to talk with their hands as much as Israelis are wont to do, and you’d just be asking for trouble. Or so it would seem if you only knew The Israel Conference on paper.

In practice, the fifth annual such meeting, which took place at West LA’s Luxe Hotel on Sunset Blvd. May 30 & 31, was a dynamic and injury-free event, featuring hundreds of attendees and representatives of dozens of Israeli and Israel-facing companies doing what people who love to talk do best – networking, making deals, and sharing ideas. The businesses included brand new to mid-stage startups, more established companies, and venture capital firms, all looking to be or be behind the next big thing. The driving force behind The Israel Conference is Sharona Justman, managing director of STEP Strategy Advisors, a business advising firm focusing on improving their clients’ profitability and market position through acquisitions. After being in Sharona’s presence for just a few minutes, you can’t help but be swept up in her positive energy, secure that her smile would light the way forward even if the electricity went out.

If you weren’t as immersed in both the Israeli economy and technology tools and toys as I am, you might be surprised at the plethora of innovative ideas coming out of Israel. You’d be less surprised if you’d read Start-Up Nation, the 2011 book that opened many people’s eyes to the remarkable success of the Israeli high-tech sector and broader economy (with its consistent growth over the last decade, even as countless other global economies have stagnated, shrunk, or utterly melted down). And you’d get completely over your surprise and just move into being inspired if you’d read The Unstoppables, the new book by Bill Schley (with a foreword by Graham Weston, founder of Rackspace). Schley and Weston, having read Start-Up Nation but with no previous experience in Israel, wanted to follow up and get another perspective on Israel’s entrepreneurial engine, so they did something incredibly Israeli: they flew to Israel with no agenda, no meetings set up, and no idea if they’d succeed. Of course, this being Israel, one contact turned into eight, which turned into dozens more, and by the end of the week, they had enough material for a book (a formal review of the book will follow). They shared the story of the genesis of the book and some of their impressions of Israeli ingenuity and the entrepreneurial spirit that imbues the Holy Land on a panel at The Israel Conference moderated by the conference’s co-chair, Yossi Vardi (known as the Godfather of Israeli high-tech).

Other panels at the conference covered topics such as cyber-security (particularly in the mobile device space), fundraising for startups at various stages of product and capital development, gaming, emerging sustainable energy solutions, and other areas where Israeli companies are on the bleeding edge of innovation. In between the panels, conference organizers built in plenty of time for attendees to network, schmooze, and – this being a Jewishly informed event – eat. The conference’s Pavilion of Companies featured some remarkable products and services offered by companies in varying stages of the startup cycle (some seeking funding to come out of limited beta testing, others that were just there to build awareness and maybe score additional clients and customers; I’ll review several of these individually in subsequent posts). But as often happens, some of the most interesting (and profitable) conversations happened off the beaten path, at small tables with three or four people who may not have known each other before this event. Arguably the greatest value in an event like The Israel Conference is to provide a space for people to find common ground and mutual personal and business interests that lead them to collaborate in ways that not only benefit them financially, but in many cases, in true Israeli and Jewish form, make the world a better place.

The next Israel Conference will take place in Los Angeles on May 29 & 30, 2014. Information is at http://www.theisraelconference.org/.

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Israel activity on and off campus

This is an eventful time in Israel-related activity in San Diego and beyond, and I wanted to get some of my thoughts and resources in one place for my own and others’ edification.

In no particular order, most people know that US President Barack Obama visited Israel this past week for the first time since his election in 2008. It was a highly anticipated trip, no less by all those who’ve been saying since day one that he would “throw Israel under the bus” than by his most fervent supporters. Many of Obama’s critics regarding his Israel policies won’t be swayed no matter what he does short of making aliyah himself (and probably not even then), and reaction in Israel and in the American Jewish community has been mixed (what else would it be? Are we not Jews?). Still, even some conservative commentators lavished POTUS with praise, including Yossi Klein Halevi, who called the Thursday speech “a love song to Israel” and maybe “the most passionate Zionist speech ever given by an American president.”

I had a great conversation Thursday, after reading part of the speech, with a couple of students at SDSU who’d stopped by the Aztecs for Israel table and display on Library Walk. Carl (a history major) and Jay (finance) were two of the most educated, intelligent, and engaged people I’ve ever spoken to about this issue. They were knowledgable and challenging, open to learning, asked insightful questions – it was really a pleasure talking to them, and while they came as friends, I hope they left even more supportive of Israel. AFI was out in force this week (and will be back next week) to counter the ridiculous amount of hatred, lies and vitriol spread by Students for Justice in Palestine during their Palestine Awareness Week/Israel Apartheid Week (one and the same, of course). With able and critical assistance from StandWithUs and other community partners, “my” students (I’m their staff advisor) provide passersby with factual, helpful information about Israel, the IDF, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (and how they differ), etc. They promote the truth – that Israel seeks peace, but that peace takes partners, and that in many ways Israel doesn’t seem to have any at this time. This is unfortunately but tellingly reflected in the student organization situation on campus, where SJP students have repeatedly rebuffed AFI efforts to engage in dialogue, either direct or with a third party (even when the third party is a high-ranking university administrator dedicated to diversity, who reports directly to the president of SDSU). My students have been amazing through this all, weathering terrible verbal and written attacks while maintaining their composure and maturity, displaying real courage and strength that makes me so proud.

Partly due to President Obama’s visit to Israel, NPR has done more stories on Israel this week than I’m used to hearing (at least when there’s no war going on). While I really appreciate the longer, more in-depth pieces public radio tends to air, they still sometimes display a subtle (or not so subtle) bias, such as when they say “the occupied West Bank” whenever talking about that region. Overall, though, I heard or saw a couple of interesting stories this week:

  • A photo essay on Beta Israel, the community of Ethiopian Jews;
  • A story about Ethiopian-born beauty Yityish Aynaw, who, as the first black Miss Israel, dined with Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, during his visit. This piece also notes a couple of other Ethiopian cultural and social milestones in Israel, including Idan Raichel’s collaboration with singer Kabra Kasai and other Ethiopian artists, and 2011 Israeli Idol winner Hagit Yaso;
  • This piece about Hamas schools in Gaza (about 20 out of 400) that teach Hebrew. This was particularly fascinating, partly because of the subtext and things that WEREN’T said by the reporter or anyone interviewed. There is a whole generation of Palestinian men who are fluent in Hebrew because they worked in Israel before the withdrawal, and who are therefore able to get a glimpse into Israeli society via television and print media. While the 9th grader the reporter talked to in this story said it was important to learn Hebrew because “it’s the language of our enemy” (a sentiment echoed/parroted by “[a]lmost everyone I speak with in Gaza,” the reporter says), the 44-year-old cab driver, who worked in Israel for 12 years, doesn’t put it in those terms. He freely admits to watching Israeli TV and reading Israeli newspapers, and wanting his kids to learn Hebrew as well. I don’t think there’s any way to consume this media diet and not come away with at least a basic sense of humanity of “the other” (in this case, Israelis) and therefore be at least a LITTLE skeptical of your leadership’s claims about the “enemy’s” intentions. In other words, the seeds of normalization exist in Gaza; they were planted years ago, before Hamas came to power, and there’s nothing Hamas can do to erase the experiences and interactions these Palestinian men had with Israelis. Obviously not everything was love and light – far from it – but many of these men (who now have families of their own) know that many Israelis want the very same things they do. They know that on both sides there are people who want to raise their families in peace and security, within borders recognized by neighbors who, while perhaps not engaging in vibrant diplomatic and cultural relations, at least recognize each other’s right to exist.

    Finally, a fair amount has been written and said about the phone call Bibi made to Turkish PM Erdogan from Ben Gurion Airport, as Netanyahu was escorting President Obama back to Air Force One for the trip to Jordan. Some of what’s being said is to the effect of “Obama forced Bibi to make the phone call,” “this is humiliating to Israel,” “Erdogan is the only winner from Obama’s trip to Israel,” and other such nonsense. Quite frankly, if you really believe that this phone call was forced on Bibi at the last minute (or at all( and that the renormalization of diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey is of no benefit to Israel, you have no idea how international diplomacy works and should just stop talking about it.
    That is all.

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Remember ICQ?

Do you remember ICQ, the first Internet-wide instant messaging service? Do you remember that it was invented by four young Israelis? You do? Well, I just met the guy who gave them the money to start the company – his name is Yossi Vardi, and he’s known as the Godfather of Israeli High-Tech. His son Arik was one of the four kids who created Mirabilis, the company that marketed ICQ and was sold to AOL for around $400 million a year and a half after they released ICQ to the public.

Anyway, Yossi was in San Diego this week and I had the pleasure of attending a reception and lecture with him at the Rady School of Management at UCSD. I wrote up the evening for publication thusly (it was intended as a journalistic piece, not a blog entry, hence the non-bloggy voice). Make sure to read my note at the bottom.
**
Sunday night at UCSD’s Rady School of Management, Israeli entrepreneur and high-tech investor Yossi Vardi gave an informative, at times uproariously funny talk on the culture of innovation and creativity that has innervated and driven Israel’s economy for almost two decades. Vardi should know a thing or two about this topic: in 1996, he gave his son and three of his friends the seed money to found a tech start-up. They created ICQ, the first Internet-wide instant messaging service, AOL purchased the company less than two years later for over $400 million.

Vardi regaled the 200+ member audience with many amusing anecdotes about his upbringing, which he says drove him to take the risks necessary to be successful as an entrepreneur and later a venture capitalist. Most notable were the stories about his mother, whose absurdly critical admonishments included telling him he was an idiot and negatively comparing him to all his “smarter” cousins. He also noted, however, that his mother was one of the first start-up entrepreneurs in Israel, saying that she started a small restaurant in Israel in the 1950s, when the country was under severe austerity measures. As he put it, she excelled in bioengineering, as she could turn any organic ingredients into chopped liver.

Interspersed between these tales were nuggets of business and innovation advice and trivia, including listing some of the major American technology companies that have major operations in Israel. Sitting in the audience and on the receiving end of a great deal of praise from Vardi was Dr. Irwin Jacobs, the founder of San Diego-based tech giant Qualcomm, which has purchased several Israeli companies and employs hundreds of people in its Israeli R&D center.

Vardi noted that entrepreneurship is a cultural, rather than technological or educational phenomenon, and that San Diego seemed to share a culture of innovation with Israel. He described innovators and creators as people who are impatient with the status quo, and noted the “hacker” mentality – the frame of mind of computer programmers, engineers, and other like-minded folks – as key to creativity. As an example, he pointed out that most people – typical users of technology – would look at a cellphone and ask, “How do I use this?” Hackers, innovators, dreamers who could go on to create the next big thing, look at the same gadget and ask, “How can I improve on this? What can I make it do that people haven’t thought about yet?” and other probing, out-of-the-box questions.

Vardi concluded his remarks by explaining how the Internet has changed the way products and services are developed, by empowering individuals to create and share ideas and tools. The engaging Q&A session, and the evening as a whole, was capped on a positive note as Vardi and a colleague, Rami Lipman, were joined by Dean Robert Sullivan of the Rady School of Management. All three spoke about technology innovation serving a greater need, and the importance of tech innovators and entrepreneurs, who are some of the most successful and wealthy individuals in the world, giving back to society.

Yossi Vardi’s visit to UCSD was co-sponsored by the Rady School of Management and the Jacobs School of Engineering; the lecture was part of StandWithUs San Diego’s Israel Startup Nation Series.
**
Best part of the night for me, besides all of it, was getting to meet Irwin Jacobs, the aforementioned founder of Qualcomm. Vardi had called out to Jacobs earlier in the evening to bring back Eudora, the much-loved email client Qualcomm discontinued supporting some years ago (yes, I know there’s an open source version available now, but it’s not the same). So when I chatted with Dr. Jacobs for a moment, I repeated that request, telling him that they had to pry the last supported version of Eudora away from me by force here at work. He smiled and told me that he still uses it! So yeah, I had a moment with Irwin Jacobs. It was awesome.

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Faith in government (and thus, humanity)

My faith in government (and thus, in humanity) is routinely and repeatedly crushed and restored, but rarely does that cycle run its full course within an hour, let alone a few moments. Tonight, I was pointed to this post by Lawrence Lessig, alerting me to the existence, now snuffed out, of Aaron Swartz. As the friend who linked to the post commented, “Morally complicated and sad.”

Within the hour (and just a bit further down my Facebook wall) I was pointed to this official White House response to one of the many online petitions they host, many of which are patently absurd and nonsensical, but, if they reach the required threshold of 25K signatures, get a response.

It just occurred to me that not only are these prime examples of the things government and the people who make it up are capable of, for worse and better, but that they’re both STEM-related. Whatever that implies.

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Inspiration, long lost, rediscovered

My last couple of years of high school I participated and competed in Speech & Debate (also known as Forensics). I did some humorous interpretation (HI), some dramatic interp (DI), some original oratory (OO – are you getting the hang of the initials now?), and even dabbled in the Debate part (not my preferred event; we did it as a favor for another team. That’s a story for another time). I was pretty good in my area/region, took home a lot of trophies, and came very close at least once to going to the State Championship. It was a very good time. We were coached by a tremendously talented English teacher, Ray Schaefer, who often had the team (and other students) up to his ranch near Palmdale for overnights, picking cherries from his orchard, playing pool in his barn, eating meals with his family… So besides the terrific public speaking/performance experience, being involved helped us grow holistically, interacting with our peers from our own and other schools, traveling and competing with a diverse population of performers and coaches, immersing ourselves in works of literature and entertainment, truly growing. But this post isn’t about me.

I can recall the titles, and even some of the lines from much of the work I performed, but I don’t remember much of anything about my school teammates’ work during that time, with one notable exception. I was lucky enough to be around to see Adam Gordon join our troupe and (as a rookie, I believe, in his sophomore or junior year) interpret P.D. Eastman’s classic “Are You My Mother?” for the Children’s Storytelling event.

The interpretive events (HI, DI, Storytelling, and others) were not exactly acting; there were rules in place about maintaining eye contact with the audience (and judges), and most people limited the range of motion and movement they employed because most of our competitions took place in school classrooms, with all the desks still set up, and you never knew what obstacles you would run into in an unfamiliar room if you blocked a scene a certain way and needed to move around.

Adam’s talent, though, couldn’t be constrained by these limitations. I know how foggy and unreliable memory can be, but I refuse to accept that my recollection of his performance is anything but accurate. He ran all over the room. He did amazing voices. He came right up to people’s faces – the audience, judges, everyone – to ask, “Are you my mother?” in the little bird’s voice. Watching him perform was transformative. It was probably the first time I saw someone “own a room,” and I learned a lot from him, even though he was a year behind me in school. I learned about interpreting and performing the written word, about channeling and sharing creativity, and maybe most of all about basic dedication to a craft and investment in yourself. Every time I saw Adam perform – and I saw him in practice and competition many times – I saw him pour all his effort into it. I still see him often in my mind’s eye, full of energy, a force of creative nature.

I can say without exaggeration that Adam’s energy has inspired and influenced me for decades, as I’ve done public speaking gigs, taken on tasks I wasn’t entirely prepared for but was eager to learn, and, ultimately, when I read stories, including “Are You My Mother?”, to my own kids.

It was thus particularly jarring to learn today that Adam Gordon died on January 3 of a rare cancer he’d been fighting for a couple of years. I felt, to use a tired but appropriate cliche, like I’d been punched in the gut, and that feeling stayed with me all day. I’m connected with many schoolmates from that period on Facebook, and I have many other friends who have offered words of comfort throughout the day, but the sense of loss is enormous. I’d been out of touch with Adam since I graduated from high school, but feel like I’ve lost a constant presence in my life.

Adam was married (to his high school sweetheart, if my eyes don’t deceive me, based on a picture of them on his Facebook page) and had two children, who I’m told go to our high school alma mater, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies. I mourn with them, pray that they know no more sorrow, and assure them that Adam’s memory will be – indeed, already has been – a blessing.

Please, take a moment or ten to tell those closest to you how much you love them. And consider making a donation to the Tower Cancer Research Foundation, the MD Anderson Cancer Center, or one of the many other cancer research and treatment centers working to eradicate this awful thing from our midst. And look at Adam’s art, the stuff he created with his own hands as he was fighting this battle that eventually took his life, and rejoice in the capacity of a human being to conquer the unconquerable and leave a powerful, lasting, positive legacy even when faced with incomprehensible tragedy.

Hawk, by Adam Gordon. Published by his family with the Facebook post announcing his death on Jan. 3.

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Figuring out IFTTT

I finally got in and fixed my IFTTT recipe for mirroring my blog posts to Facebook. So, please go read my last post, about the Israeli ad campaign that includes this gem of a banner ad:

“When it’s important for you to know what’s happening with the elections…”

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No Sacred Cows

Israelis will make light or fun of pretty much anything, and not just behind closed doors. There’s a radio ad campaign on Israeli Broadcasting Authority stations right now promoting the election coverage on the news station. In the first ad I heard, which was amusing, Michelle Obama is heard trying to get Barack Obama’s attention, but he’s listening to Israeli election coverage on Reshet Bet. Here’s the banner ad version:

Obama Israeli Election ad

Funny, right? Aside from the borderline offensive “black dude with a boombox” imagery (it’s a known issue – a feature, not a bug, if you will – that Israelis are 1) politically incorrect and 2) totally stuck in the 80s when it comes to their vision of the USA).

Later, though, they ran an ad with a guy with a heavy Arab accent. It turned out to be Hassan Nasrallah‘s aide trying to get his boss’s attention, while the head of Hezbollah is listening to Israeli radio to get the latest update on the elections.

I realize this is not nearly as funny in translation, let alone in a bland description, but it is hilarious.

UPDATE: I just heard another one, this time with a guy talking to Ahmadinejad. Told you: NOTHING. SACRED. I’ll try to capture the audio of at least one of these and update if I can.

UPDATE 2 (1/9): Here’s the Ahmadinejad spot. Farsi-speaking friends, is the quick exchange something like “Come on, Reshet Bet again?!” “Quiet! I’m listening to election blah blah!”?
AhmadinejadReshetBet

(This is the first time I’m inserting media into a post using the embedded WordPress option, hope it works)

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Figuring out humor/comedy/what’s funny with my kids

This morning we all enjoyed this bit from Sesame Street, one of the greatest examples of entertainment ever put to media – educational, and with humor that appeals to everyone from preschoolers to centegenerians:
Ricky Gervais sings Elmo a lullaby

Recently, too, on the heels of a sarcastic comment from her mother at the dinner table (“I see you didn’t like that dish at all” after the child inhaled a plateful of food) I explained sarcasm, very basically, to my 6yo. Within seconds, she referenced a bit from another show she’d seen recently (the very amusing Super Hero Squad Show, available on Netflix), showing her perfect grasp of the concept.

I’m a proud and silly papa, I am.

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No equivalence

The loss of innocent lives is truly tragic, while not always avoidable during war. But the fact that Israeli media is discussing, and the IDF is investigating, the tragic deaths of the members of the al Dalou family, brings into sharp relief the stark cultural differences that are making peace in this region so hard to achieve. How many Palestinian/Arab news sources are reporting about the injuries and deaths and damage caused by the rockets coming out of Gaza, let alone with the names of the victims?

The IDF continues to try to avoid civilian casualties, and Hamas continues to make that as difficult as possible by storing and firing their munitions from within civilian areas in Gaza (not to mention using medical and media buildings and insignia on vehicles to try and avoid being targeted or, at best, make Israel look bad when it hits these targets).

Along with many other people, a couple of friends of mine on Facebook (both moms) have mentioned the basic, fundamental pain and universal “wrongness” of hearing about and seeing dead children. But a piece I heard on the radio (I’ll link to it if I can find it) along with years of historical evidence and images like this one from the al Dalou funeral (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Xinhua Press/Corbis) point to a culture that exalts martyrdom and elevates the struggle to destroy its enemies above even its own children’s lives. Yes, there are people grieving for these children, and for other innocent lives lost, but grief is not apparent on the face of the man carrying the child in the forefront of that shot.

Another thing going around the social networks over the last few days is a Golda Meir line, “We will have peace (with the Arabs) when they love their children more than they hate us.” Golda and other Israeli leaders have said things that are far less enlightened, but this line still rings through and true.

May we see peace in our lifetimes.

Pal-Isr Flags & Dove

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