Sunday, July 21, 2019

An American Dream

Last weekend, I took some time to read a biography of my grandfather, Jerome Epstein. 

I never had the opportunity to meet him.  I am named for him.

My mom had the foresight to put together a book about his life.

He left his hometown in Lithuania at the age of 17 for the US and settled in San Antonio, Texas of all places.

He saw his parents only one more time the rest of his life.

I thought about the courage he must have had to embark on that journey and the sacrifice he was making. Not only for himself and his desire for a better life, but for the descendants he would never meet. Each of them would be impacted by his decision.

The next day, I went to the simchat bat (naming ceremony) for my newest niece, Jerome's great-granddaughter and looked around the room.

It was a beautiful room in a beautiful synagogue where people were free to practice their religion without fear of persecution from the government.  The reception was fantastic, with plenty of food and beverages. 

It was a well-educated group with varying degrees of affluence, but no financial poverty.

His descendants and their families had achieved the American Dream that he had when he left the Old World for the New.

I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what he had done for all of us.

And I also felt tremendous gratitude to America.

There aren't too many places where the type of transformation that my family has experienced over the past 100 years would be possible.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

When a Dead Flower Comes to Life...

Today was a special day. 

My newest niece was named (she was born last week) and her name is the same as my maternal grandmother, Karlyn.

This morning, before the event, I was doing a bit of cleaning up and I found a dried white rose.  It wasn't any rose, it was the rose that I held at my grandmother's funeral over a decade ago.

Knowing my sister and her relationship with my grandmother, I felt pretty confident that her new daughter's name would be connected somehow.

I certainly didn't expect the same name, but that's for reasons beyond the blog.

Back to the flower.

I saw it and knew that today was the day to throw it out. 

So I did.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

The US Women's World Cup Victory

Today, the US Women's soccer team won the World Cup.  I watched the game with Nadia and my dad. 

I am not 100% sure why, but I found myself getting very emotional when they received the trophy.

I also wondered when the men's world cup would start being called "Men's World Cup" as opposed to "World Cup" and "Women's World Cup."

Monday, July 01, 2019

What do you plan to do with your life?

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

This poem, the Summer Day, by Mary Oliver was new to me when I heard it recently as part of a meditation session. Perhaps you have heard it.

I suggest you close your eyes and just listen to it.

Friday, June 28, 2019

A Special House with a Special Sales Story

Long-time readers of this blog know the Story of 9.79 and the many moments of influence it has had over the years.

As we age, the influence grows over time and one need look no further than the price of the house being sold by my friend since Kindergarten, Josh.

Yes, in homage to an important moment in his life, my life, the lives of others, and, arguably Olympic and World history, the sales price for his house tells not just a story of tremendous value for the property, but of the essence of the people who lived there and cared for it.

It's a home that has a sense of history, purpose, and connection.  It's a home that appreciates relationships and community.

It's a home someone is going to be lucky to own.

6Bedroom, 3 bathroom, 2,242Sq Ft house on 0.26Acres in the highly sought-after Shepherd Park neighborhood

Thursday, June 27, 2019

When Kids Sing About Active Shooters...

Watch the video here

It's really intense.  

Trigger warning.

You can't help but feel sad that "Active Shooters" in schools is a thing that requires drills, akin to nuclear attacks in the 50s and 60s.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Florida 2019- Miami and Ft. Lauderdale

Call me ignorant, but I had no idea that Fort Lauderdale, FL was referred to by some as the "Venice of America" for its canals.

But I know it now as one of our excursions was a family paddleboarding trip up and down them past some million dollar homes and conds and some multi-million dollar yachts.  

In addition to two visits to Dania Beach where the kids enjoyed the warm waters and mild waves (apparently, the Bahamas acts as a kind of massive reef-another fact I didn't know), Nadia, who planned most of our trip, guided us to the Wynwood Walls.

Some pictures below to add color, but it's a remarkable example of urban innovation.

Apparently, there were some developers (Tony and Janet Goldman) who were trying to figure out what to do with some warehouses in an area that was suffering from urban blight.

Their genius was in creating an outdoor art museum to celebrate street murals which seem to get refreshed each year and are just magnificent.  Now, the area is revitalized around the art as tourists come in to see it. 

When we were there, it was pretty hot, but it's a destination where I could have spent a few hours just mesmerized by the colors and images. 

There are a few indoor exhibits to complement the outside works as well.

Definitely worth it.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Florida 2019- Key West

Had a family event in Miami so figured we'd make a short vacation of it.

I had wanted to go out to Key West because, well, why not?

visit Ernest Hemingway's house (this is his studio), where I got some insights into the creative genius and how he set himself up for inspiration.

and the "Little White House" established by Harry S. Truman, where we got a deep dive on the many, many significant accomplishments of his administration.

For a short visit (and a 4 hour drive each way), it was totally worth it.

Plus, we hit the Southernmost point in the entire continental US as well as "Mile 0" for US Route 1.

That was kind of neat.

Other than that, we have some beach days and had hoped to hit the Everglades, but the weather made that impossible for us.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

End of the school year, end of another era

Today is the last day of school.

Nadia is finishing up 5th grade, so our Elementary School days are over.

Paco graduated from 8th grade last night and the tribute video from one of his teachers was, well, unique ;-)

I saw a quote today on the WeCroak  app which I may have quoted before:

"If we're not reflecting on the impermanent nature of life, then there are a lot of unimportant things that seem important."

Sunday, June 02, 2019

A silent vision for the 50th birthday...

It's a little scary to get a vision in your head and feel a strong pull towards making it a reality.

Actually, it's a lot scary.

It's even scarier when you put it down in writing and share it with others.

It definitely makes me feel vulnerable when I do it, but I just finished Brené Brown's book, Dare to Lead, so doing my best here.

The idea I have in my head is the activity I want to do for my 50th birthday. 

Now, we have a few years to go (don't say you didn't get advance notice), but it's starting to take shape.

What I want to do is have a 4-5 day silent meditation retreat.

You'll arrive on a Sunday in the 3-6 range. 

We'll have a group orientation session and dinner (it'll be vegan and kosher) and you'll get a chance to meet the other attendees.

It's a self-selecting group...if you're committing to this environment, you are the kind of person we want there.  Basically, if I know you and you want to come, you are welcome to join us. 

We'll have a small "book of attendees" where we have names, pictures, and how I know you. That way, you'll have a reference point during the event.

Over the course of the next few days (until Thursday night), you'll be in total silence.  

There will be some meditation guides (who will talk) before each session and instruct you what to do (novice to experts are welcome) and how to get the most from your experience.

My friend, Sara Solomon, has agreed to take on the Project Manager role. She is more than qualified to do all of this. She just did a week long silent retreat and is an eexpert.

We'll have a website and an FAQ, etc. so you can get yourself ready beforehand.

Anyway, from Sunday night until Thursday night, you won't talk. 

You'll see others, of course, and you'll have a shared silence.

Then, Thursday night, we'll have dinner and a group discussion.  Friday morning, breakfast and another discussion. Much of this is TBD.

We'll have some other activities, like walks and yoga during the retreat, but all in silence.

There may be 3 people there, there may be 30 people there. No idea.

I view this as the "Mental Tough Mudder" and training for those of us entering the "2nd half" of our lives (who wish to have this type of training, of course. There are other ways!)

If you are interested in being put on the list now, let me know. 

Here's to the shared goal of pulling this off.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Memorial Day

I do feel a little bad about how unsolemn Memorial Day is for most Americans.

Someone sent me this image and I thought it was really appropriate.

There are plenty of crazy things going on in America now, but Americans should never lose sight of how grateful they are to live in this country.

Though the day wasn't solemn, I did make it count. Spent some time with Nadia on the softball field working on her mechanics. 

It was a nice father-daughter moment on a day made possible by the sacrifices of others.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

What the Torah Can Teach Us About Morality in a World of Omnipresent Artificial Intelligence

Note: Gave this dvar torah (sermon) on May 11, 2019.

Parsha: Kedoshim

There are 300,000 children in America afflicted with a horrible, incurable disease known as pediatric arthritis.  There are 7 types of pediatric arthritis, each with a different treatment plan.  The challenge for doctors is to figure out which type the child has.

The traditional method requires a systematic effort to test for type 1, then 2, and so on. It was time consuming, expensive, and worst of all, the kid is in pain the whole time.

Today, a new type of artificial intelligence can tell doctors which type of arthritis a child has based on which joints are in pain in his or her body at a given time.  It cuts time, cost, and pain.

At the same time, there are now AI-based facial applications in China that can recognize 3 billion faces per second.

So, and I am not making this up, if you decide you want to jaywalk, your face will be identified when you do and a message about your anti-social behavior will get sent to your family members, your boss, the local police precinct, and put out on Sina Weibo, the equivalent to Twitter in China. 

Oh…and your social credit score will get dinged.  Last year, 12 million riders were refused entry to planes and trains in China because their social credit score was too low.

What I want to talk about today is the idea of intelligence.

Specifically, how our parsha, Kedoshim, helps us understand the unique role that humans will need to play in a world of omnipresent AI particularly because it has no emotion nor morals.

The root of the word “Intelligence” is Intelligere, which is Latin for “to discern.”

It’s not about the knowledge you have, but how you use it.

Kedoshim provides us the playbook for discerning.

It helps us understand that people are not merely to be viewed as pieces of data. Our behaviors are not wholly predictable. Nor should we all be treated in similar ways. 

The emphasis of Kedoshim is very much the opposite of AI.

Each and every person is made in the image of God and, thus, is a unique and special entity. We are each capable of making ourselves holy…which means that individuals can defy data science.

In fact, the very way that people become holy is through a commitment to separation from the behaviors of the larger group.

Marcus Jastrow’s first definition for the root Kuf, Daled, Shin, is “separation.” 

For example, the concept of “kiddushin” represents the act of separating out the one spouse you have chosen from all the rest. 

Indeed, if we read the mitzvot of the parsha through the lens of separation, we will notice a pattern:

·     Separating Shabbat from other days of the week
·     Separating Hashem from other gods
·     Separating kosher from non-kosher foods

..and so on.
Even better, the separation is, like good software code, something that is binary and can be tested as either “true” or “false.”

-      You either paid the workman his wages immediately, or you didn’t
-      You either coveted your neighbor’s wife, or you didn’t
-      You either avoided idol worship, or you didn’t.

Hashem tells us that we must be Kedoshim, “כי קדוש אני,” “Because I (God) am holy.”

Since God is incomparable and, since each of us has an element of Him in us, there is no human being on earth who is anything other than one-of-a-kind.

Applying the same A-I algorithm to entire populations, therefore, poses a direct challenge to the concept of Kedushah. 

But what about the guidance of "ואהבת לרעך כמוך? --- Love your friend as yourself?  Aren’t we commanded to apply the same standard for our friend as we would for ourselves? 

There’s a story about Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov.

He once saw two non-Jews in a bar.  The first drunken friend asked the other: “do you really love me?”

“Of course!” the second one answered. 

The first one replied: “how can you say you love me if you don’t know what I am lacking [in life?]”

Unless we dig deeper and discern the true & unique needs of another person, we can never fulfill the mitzvah of loving them or separating them out in a way that leads to kedushah. 

Artificial intelligence works in the exact opposite way, by looking for similar patterns across groups of people.  AI does not possess the emotional intelligence to account for the uniqueness of every individual.

This is the domain of humans, the only entities capable of being holy.

Kedoshim helps us differentiate and separate between the things we could do from the things we should do.  The Torah has contemplated a myriad of possible actions and outcomes, especially those prevailing in the surrounding Ancient Near East cultures.

We could sacrifice our children. We could worship idols. We could have prohibited sexual relations. 

Soon, we will be confronted with AI-enabled options about what we as a people can do, the likes of which we will have never encountered before. 

We will have autonomous vehicles that will have to make a decision between crashing into a telephone pole and injuring or killing the occupants of the car or swerving onto a sidewalk, injuring or killing pedestrians.

We could choose either option, but which should we choose?

We could choose to genetically modify our unborn children for hair color, eye color, and artistic or technical leanings…or even implant brains with direct connection to the Internet, creating a race of super-intelligent beings that get 1600 on their SATs at age 5 or earlier. Should we?

We could identify individuals with a propensity to commit sexual assault or theft. Should we?

How do we decide what is really Kadosh and what is not in a world of near infinite possible outcomes and scenarios?

Holiness is something that only humans can attain, which means it is left to us to discern when things should be separated out and when they should not be.

Perhaps the guy jaywalking in China did so because he saw an elderly woman across the street, and he wanted to perform CPR? Or perhaps there was a child in the street he wanted to save from an oncoming car?

As Artificial Intelligence touches ever more parts of our lives, we need to use our ability to discern and remember the human, who is made in God’s image, at the other end of the algorithm.

As Aristotle once said, “the virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Thoughts from this past week

Just a few random thoughts that I wanted to document for future reference.

  • I am sickened by the attack at the Chabad in San Diego and the NY Times' anti-Semitic cartoon.
  • The size and scope of legal and illegal immigration to the US is an even bigger challenge than most people realize and there's no solution in sight.
  • Many men were trained by society to not show fear and that repression manifests itself in other negative ways.
  • Meditation is really great.
  • In 100 years', Brexit will be viewed as one of the most important events in the history of the 21st century.
  • Tesla may be undervalued.
  • Amazon may go into the travel business. Order your tickets from Alexa.
  • I would not be surprised if California seceded from the US.
  • I have no idea how the proposals advocated by most Democrats such as Medicare for all, free college, and debt forgiveness could ever realistically be funded.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

JavaScript birthday card

I am pretty maniacal about having my kids learn how to code.

Nadia (11) made a birthday card for me in the form of a JavaScript program.

Yes, I am a proud papa.

Performance based Colleges

I feel like my dream is being realized. Here's a new type of college that is initially free for students.

They pay a percentage of their paycheck.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

How Losing Builds Integrity

I am listening to a great book now called, Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality 

One of the things the author talks about is how important it is to teach your kids how to lose.

After all, we all do it. 

So may as well learn how to get good at it and learn from the lessons.

This idea led me to a new series on Netflix called, appropriately enough, "Losers."

It's about athletes who failed.

In the first episode, there's a phenomenal quote from Miles Davis. It reminds us of the silver lining in losing...

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” 

Monday, February 25, 2019

How political are the Oscars?

I watched the Oscars for about 5 minutes, but the thought crossed my mind if films are nominated/win more these days because Academy voters want to support the message of a film more than identifying the "best".

Admittedly, "best" is subjective, so it may be "best for this time in history," but I couldn't shake the notion that it's more political than ever (maybe not and I'm just more aware of it).

Seems like I'm not alone in thinking that.

Friday, January 18, 2019

How DonorsChoose Brought a Smile to my Face

A few months ago, I shared a story of how I got a DonorsChoose card as a speaker's gift.

I thought it was great and decided to fund a Holocaust awareness project at a school in California.

Recently, I received a bunch of thank you notes from the students and a short report.

I have to say, it felt great on many levels.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What's great about snow days

I think there's something magical about snow days. For me, it's having that fleeting feeling of being a kid again.
I went sledding with Paco and Nadia.
Plus, Nadia and I got into a bit of a snowball fight.
Maybe it's the purity of the white snow that brings back the innocence?