Sunday, November 24, 2019

When Government Experience and Political Promises Don't Line Up

I received the "Personal Property Consolidated Tax Bill" from Montgomery County, Maryland yesterday.

Apparently, I owe a few dollars.

Here's where things get interesting.

  • It came in the mail
  • It's paper
  • There's a return envelope in and I need to send in a check.
  • There is no website to go to and make the payment
  • The envelope is being sent to a PO Box in Philadelphia

Now, if you go to the County Executive's (Marc Elrich) website, you see statements such as:

"A Growing Economy" and "A More Affordable and Welcoming County."

I guess my question for our County Executive would be:

If you really want a better economy, why are you so comfortable with 
  • wasting the taxpayer dollars on the back-end processing associated with check deposits?
  • wasting the time of the taxpayer who needs to write a check, put on a stamp, and mail it
  • sending the payments out of state? If you are going to do that, may as well offshore it to make it cheaper
It's 2019. The idea that I can't pay this tax on a website is just downright offensive.

Plus, I'd love to understand how these paper-based, ineffective, costly processes contribute to a growing, more affordable county?

(Updated: Thanks to Ari for pointing out that it is possible to pay online. I admit, I didn't check. I still maintain that the URL should be on the paper bill and that, in reality, there shouldn't be a paper bill in the first place.)


I haven't watched any of it.

On the one hand, I certainly understand the need to keep the democracy in check.  That's pretty important.

On the other hand, this whole process was tainted for me from the outset as the Democrats kept saying "we're going to impeach him."

For me, that made it look like a Kafka-esque trial. "We want to nail him, we just need to find a good thing to pin on him."

There's no doubt in my mind he strong-armed Ukraine. That's politics.
I'm not sure it's really worth of impeachment and I'm certainly not sure that it's worthy of it w/less than a year to the election.

If I were Mitch McConnell, I'd drag out the trial for 2-3 months and make all of the Senators be present to attend.

I'm no fan of Trump at all, but it's tough for me to see the Senate convicting him, and the process has been questionable. This doesn't even take into account how his supporters are going to react.

What makes me even sadder is that it takes the country's attention away from some really important issues.

Granted, keeping a President honest is super critical, but this isn't like Watergate....or even Clinton, where it was "we found something he did, let's impeach him."

I'm sure there are many who disagree with me.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Democrats Get an Internet Election

Was thinking about the fact that former Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick just the Democratic race.

There's a really interesting article in Rolling Stone about what this means, but it seems like the Dems are doing what the GOP did in 2016.

It's their "Internet Election."

But what I mean by that is that the fragmentation of information creation and consumption (anyone can create content and people can read whatever they want) that begin in the late 90s is rolling over the political establishment.

The idea that a candidate can join the race right before Thanksgiving when the Iowa caucuses are in early January would have been insanity a few years ago.

You needed a "ground game" and all of that.  While the "ground game" is still important, I am sure, the "air game" that the Internet/social media enables is akin to the invention of the forward pass in football, a literal game-changer.

That ability to spin up a campaign (in theory, we'll see how it works for him) and solicit donations cost-effectively nationwide is something that was only made possible this decade.

Howard Dead started it. Obama really made it work, Trump exploited it, and now a centralized institution (the political parties) are breaking at the seams because of it.

This isn't just a US phenomenon. Yesterday's WSJ had an interview with the former Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar.

Mr. Aznar also sees a “trend of political fragmentation” in countries of the democratic West, with Spain as a prime example. “The results of Spain’s election has meant the presence in Parliament of 16 parties,” he says. “You cannot guarantee reasonable government in these circumstances.”
I suspect that the political fragmentation is going to get worse in the near future. 

We can certainly lament it. It's frightening.

But we have to accept it.

Then, we have to figure out what to do about it.

But the Internet's wave of disruption which has hit retail, manufacturing, taxis, and everything, continues to have impact and will for a long time. We're just seeing it at the highest levels.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Learning to be a teacher

I taught a meditation class for the 2nd time yesterday, which is funny because I don't really think of myself as a "meditation teacher."

The night before, Friday night, I found myself in one of those light sleeps. In the back of my mind, I kept having questions pop up.

One set was of the "how will I make sure that the experience is good for the people who attend?" [there were 4].

But another set was of the "what if they think I'm silly?" type.

Those are even worse. That little voice in the head that casts doubts upon yourself before you even start.

A few hours before the class, I was talking with one of my teachers and said something like, "I'm teaching this class even though I don't know what I'm doing."

His response was simple and profound. "None of us do."

That helped.

I told him, "I have a lesson plan for the session mapped out. There's a part though that really feels like it will push me out of my comfort zone."

His response, "Good. Do That."

So, I did.

It's not a profound insight or anything, but I think the opportunity in all of this work is to really internalize the idea of just doing things 1% beyond where they were the day before.

Still not easy, but easier.

The key, for me at least, is to do these things every day.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

China Go

There's a part of me that thinks the best candidate to support for Presidency is Andrew Yang.

After all, his family is from Taiwan and if we need to confront the growing threat to America and Western civilization that China represents, maybe the best thing we can do is to get someone in the job who understands the Chinese mentality.

I am FAR from an expert on China. I have been there twice, including the 1997 handover from Britain of Hong Kong...which is playing out pretty much as we expected.

Still, I have been thinking that I need to spend more time trying to understand China.

The country and its leaders are impacting every facet of life and will continue to do so.

I asked a friend of mine recently, who does know a lot about China, where to start.

He said, "a friend once told me, 'if you want to understand China, you need to learn how to play Go."

So, I started doing that.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Disaster Preparedness

I've been on a preparedness kick recently. 

On a basic level, it's just taking the time to reorganize parts of my life that had gotten a bit disorganized. I don't like to spend time looking for things.

But on a more important level, I did things like check the fire extinguishers which I discovered were out of date, so I replaced them.

Also, I believe it's important to have ample food and water supplies available in case of emergency.

It's one of those things that you hope you never have to use.

Maybe it's the stage of life I am in. Not sure.

Just been on my mind recently.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Coming Vegan Awakening

I  think the day will come when being a meat-eater will be viewed in the way that we view racists, sexists, or homophobes.

I could be wrong, and it could be the world in which I orient myself, but I am seeing a growing sense of awareness. Whether it's Impossible Burgers at Burger King or major grocery chains advocating a meat-free lifestyle, it's clear that something is happening.

Add in documentaries such as Game Changers that aren't evangelical, but science-based and there's some real evidence that the movement is growing.

I've been on a 97.9% vegan diet for about 4 years now.

Not quite 100% because I have eaten the occasional egg or two, don't pay much attention to eggs as ingredients in bread, for example, and still eat honey.  Working on that.

For me, the journey started off based on my own personal needs and goals, it was around diet.

However, as I've learned more about nutrition, I've also learned more about the philosophy of veganism which is really a philosophy of mindful eating. It's also a philosophy of compassion.

I've never eaten pork products, but when you see a video like this (and you know the same thing happens for all types of animals), I wonder how much longer people who claim to be conscious and aware (and probably love their dogs or cats) will justify their position. 

If you watch cooking shows, you'll hear comments like "everything is better with bacon."

Once upon a time, people would say "you have to wear a fur coat" or "whale blubber....whatever."

I think the Vegan wave rides the climate awareness wave.

There are plenty of ways to get protein (everyone's big concern) and stay healthy on a vegan diet.

Two people I like on Twitter are The Vegan Nutritionist and Ashwani Garg

I was at an event a few weeks ago where someone was roasting another person for being a vegetarian.

In the future, that kind of behavior will be frowned upon and restaurants like this will be boycotted.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Friends keep you accountable

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend who said to me.

"you know, there's something I have to get off my chest."

He then proceeded to tell me about something I had done to him a few years ago that he thought was totally selfish and inconsiderate on my part.

He was right.

I was ashamed that I had behaved that way.

However, I was grateful that my friend had the courage to confront me.

More than that, I appreciated the display of confidence in me that he had. He must have believed that telling me would serve a purpose.

I've come to realize that the friends I value the most are the ones who keep me honest and who appreciate when I do the same for them.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Who shall live and who shall die?

One of the fundamental questions-and certainly one of the most poignant parts of the service- during the time of year that spans Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur is the idea that some of us won't be around at this time next year.

It's a tough concept to keep in mind. After all, we've been at a bunch of services in years past so you might say that you have a "good track record."

Still, there were holidays well before I was born that I didn't attend so it shouldn't be that much of a stretch.

Yet, for me, it is.

So, this year, I went in thinking to myself, "what if this is really the last Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur that I ever experience?"

I looked around the room, watched some of the people, listened just a bit more closely to the words of the Torah and the songs.

Ever since Thanksgiving, I've been using an app called We Croak. Thanks to my brother, Barak, for pointing it out.

As the site says, "The WeCroak app is inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying: to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily."

I can't say that I'm 100% happy 24/7, but I can say that the contemplation of death during the services did make me feel lighter as I realized the opportunity I had in front of me to appreciate the present of the present.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Rosh Hashana Intention

Tonight begins Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, so it's the perfect time for reflection and introspection.

I definitely find myself at an interesting point in life.  Like many, I've started to think about bigger questions of long-term impact and my purpose, while also thinking about my interconnectivity with others.

This line of thinking doesn't come naturally to me and there are plenty of times when I find myself reverting back to a self-centered, elitist, know-it-all, arrogant mentality.  It's frustrating when that happens, but one of the things I have learned as a result of the meditation efforts and study of the mind and consciousness is the need for self-compassion. I am definitely sometimes too hard on myself.

As we head into Rosh Hashana, I have outlined my intention for the holiday which is to contemplate the idea of Fatherhood and Husbandhood (if that's a word).

For so long (and probably too long), I have just "done" the role, but I haven't really thought about it with as much intention as I would like.

I've tried to become more intentional in many parts of my life (see this post from my other blog on Flow), and I want to do a bit more of the same in these two roles which are, of course, some of the most significant.

It is my hope that through the liturgy, stories, tunes, and community of the holiday (and the following days leading to Yom Kippur- which is my favorite holiday), that I can begin the journey of a thousand Li with one step.

Speaking of Lao Tzu, I was re-reading Tao Te Ching recently and found some interesting similarities between Chapter 33 and the opening of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, a well-known Jewish text).

In the Tao Te Ching (in my translation), it says:
He who overcomes others is strong; he who overcomes himself is mighty.

He who is satisfied with his lot is rich;

In Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot, it says:
Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. 
Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot.
Since Lao Tzu predates Yehuda HaNassi (he put the mishna together), I am left wondering:
  • are these just universal truths obvious to any philosopher?
  • was there any knowledge exchange between China and ancient Near East?
Something else to ponder, but either way, good advice.

Oh..and I taught my first meditation class last week. It was a great experience and I am grateful to Sara S., Michael M., and Michael G. for encouraging me and providing me with support. Plus, the brave souls who were willing to be my guinea pigs.

Shana Tova

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Consciously Creating a Mind and Brain Diet

I saw a version of this cartoon in a book my sister-in-law gave me called "Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain

Over the past few months, I've read 10-12 books on the topic of mindfulness, the brain, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence.

I've really come around to this way of thinking...that feeding your brain is like feeding your body.

We can choose to put the equivalent of sugar and fat into our brains (reality TV and instagram posts) or high-fiber, nutritious items.

Sure, there are moments when we can indulge and enjoy sweet things.

But overall, a brain diet that mirrors a healthy food diet makes a lot of sense to me.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Learning to Drive

Tikkanen got her Learner's Permit this week.  We went out that night for a nice drive. Same with the following evening.

Later in the week, we took a rush hour drive as well. 

We'll probably do this in 3 stages. The first will be suburban Maryland. The next will be DC and the Beltway with some highway  driving.  Then, one day I'll just say something like "ok, we're driving to Philadelphia" and we'll do it.

She's been a great student. Thoughtful and conscientious.  It's definitely a bit nerve-wracking at times, but really good meditative practice. 

More importantly, I realize that this is an opportunity to impart life lessons through the lens of learning how to drive.

Learning to drive is a lifelong pursuit and this week I found out about a really interesting connection between two of my driving instructors.

Lakkanen and I are reading Pirkei Avot in preparation for her bat mitzvah.  On my own, I have been reading some of Marcus Aurelius' sayings from Meditations.

It turns out that the curator of the mishna, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, was not only a contemporary of the Emperor, but a friend.

That was a really unexpected find for me

Sunday, September 08, 2019

The “N-Word”, Perceptions about Police, and Bob Dylan

I was listening to Bob Dylan’s epic ballad “The Hurricane” about the miscarriage of justice done to Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.

It's such a powerful song that I hate to bring it down to one question that is seemingly trite, but I was curious about this.

The white Dylan clearly uses the “N-word” in the song. I wonder how he would be treated if he released that song today?

The other is that the perception of injustice done to blacks by the police sounds hauntingly familiar.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Digital Addiction and the Sabbath

Of all of the possible addictions out there, the one that has me most concerned these days is digital addiction.

I think the idea of a Shabbat or a "digital-free Sabbath" where people abstain from electronic devices of all kinds will soon be recognized as a necessity of mental health and as a competitive advantage.

It is the only time during the week when we are able to free ourselves from the attention-seeking, engagement-driven world that we live in that is designed to maximize dopamine rushes and minimize deep thought.

Yet, it is deep thought that is what allows us to actually become smarter.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

When the Rat Race is Over

I spent a day on a $100 million yacht owned by a billionaire.

I've put some pictures of my stateroom below, but they don't do it justice.

No expense was spared.

There was an elevator, which is something you need, of course, since there are 4 floors.

There was marble everywhere; a classical Italian-style dining room with crystal chandeliers. One of the "living room" areas had diamonds encrusted in the ceiling.  There were not one, but two saunas (one wet, one dry) from which you could exit and immediately jump into the water.

The front of the ship had a crane for lifting the jet skis and tender boat in and out of the water.  The technology on the bridge was, well, you can imagine.  The boat's battery provided 12 hours of power and that doesn't include the 2 diesel engines with I can't remember how much horsepower, but it was a lot.

We had to take a 12 minute speedboat ride from the Marina just to get there.

We had meals using gold-plated Versace cutlery.

I'm barely scratching the surface here, though the yacht itself had no scratches and not a speck of dust or lint anywhere. 

You would eat off the floor of the engine room.

But the thing that stuck with me the most was something the owner of the yacht said during dinner.

"When I was younger, I was so [finanically] hungry. I just wanted more.  Now, I see that 'more' doesn't do it. I'm not hungry anymore."

And I thought to myself...."this is where the Rat Race ends. I've seen the finish line of the world of consumption and when you get there,  you still feel empty."

We all have a choice.

Continue to acquire more stuff in the hope that it will make us happy or decide to invest in ourselves and our personal development.

I've been to the end of Rat Race road and seen the view and I have the pics to prove it.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The question many college students get wrong...

Despite some of my previous rants against the system of higher education in America today, my issue is not with the concept of a liberal arts well-rounded education.

My issue is with the cost, the lack of academic rigor, and decreasing amounts of intellectual honest/integrity.  

I also, for the record, like the idea of having people from diverse backgrounds co-exist...or try to.

However, one of the most commonly cited criticisms by students (and adults) of a traditional liberal arts education is:

"When will I ever use that [history, English, philosophy, art, literature, psychology, etc.] in REAL life?"

Well, let me tell you a story. 

In college, I took two semesters of a class from one of the world's foremost experts on French history, Orest Ranum.

The first was called "French Government in Thought and Practice from 1648-1715." The second was either the period immediately before or after that. Sorry, can't remember.

Anyway, that's about as good as an example as you will find of a class that would seemingly have no future practical value.

So, let me tell you a story.

A few months ago, I was at a dinner with a number of very (and I do mean very) successful business people.

I don't know the total net worth of the table, but easily into the billions.

I happened to be sitting next to the investment banker for one of them.

Turns out...he's French.

We start talking and he was naturally skeptical that I, being American, know all that much about France. 

After all, he would normally be right. The average American sadly doesn't have a serious depth of knowledge about France.

Well, thank you Orest Ranum. 

After I shared my thoughts on the Edict of Nantes among other things, we discussed some of the various regions in France. 

The result? I could tell he was relaxed.

That led to us having a pretty in-depth conversation and establishing mutual trust.

I remember thinking afterwards....

"you want to know when you will use a French history class that you took in college?  

You'll use it nearly 30 later at a dinner with one of the world's top investment bankers who happens to French.  You won't use it to show off, but to show him (or her) that you are educated, thoughtful, and appreciate other people's histories outside of America. This will set you apart as different, which is what you are trying to do."

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Seeing New York as a Traveler

Following a week in Greece, I had the opportunity to spend a week in the NY/NJ area.  

While there was one official business activity that was on the agenda, I was determined to explore the city as a traveler, keeping an open mind and doing my best to notice and observe things around me.

There were many highlights to the trip, including seeing Michael Merwitz, a friend from Snickelways whom I had not seen in 20 years and Adam/Josette, who are about to get married.

But the most epic activity of the week involved my Uncle Sol who met me at 34th and Lexington and then we proceeded down 2nd Ave through the Lower East Side over the Williamsburg bridge and towards Park Slope.  

Over 7 miles all told.

We were blessed with great weather overall and I was fortunate to have a lifelong New Yorker, my Uncle Sol, with me to point out key landmarks along the way, such as Yonah Schimmel's bakery, among many others.

Sol has a wealth of knowledge about the city and its' ever-changing dynamic, having seen it over more than 5 decades.  

One of the things that is so fantastic about New York City is that, on every block, you see activity. And within a few blocks, worlds can totally change, as they did when we went from the Hasidic part of Williamsburg to a public housing section to a gentrifying part of Bedford-Stuyvestant to the upscale Park Slope.

We stopped for a few drinks and coffee along the way and found a vegan Caribbean restaurant, which was an "only in New York" type of moment. We stayed for 2.5 hours talking to the staff there about the business and the changing neighborhood.

I've lived in New York for a few years and visited over 50 times, maybe more.  It's easy to get caught up in the "get from A to B" mentality.

However, when you focus on the "to" part of "A to B," you realize just how much there is every single step of the way.

Here's our route (roughly)

Tamika at Bad Gyal Vegan made sure I stayed away from allergens

The stately Williamsburg Savings Bank, a relic of a bygone era.

The view from the rooftop of my starting point at 34th and Lexington. Not bad.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

A visit to Greece-- the birthplace of Democracy

About a year ago, I called my dad and told him that I was feeling demoralized about the state of Democracy.  It's not difficult when you live at "ground zero for the twilight zone," aka- Washington, DC.

With a long legacy of 1:1 father-son trips, I suggested that he and I go to the birthplace of democracy, Greece, to find some inspiration.

So, that's what we did.

We read Plato's Republic in preparation (he did much more than that) to get ourselves in a "Greece of the mind."

More than seeing sites or even discussing democracy, I was just trying to relax the brain for a while and appreciate the fact that I was able to travel to Europe with my 84-year old father.

I noticed that, in almost every place we went, he was the oldest person by 15-20 years, a true testament that age is a state of mind, not a number.  He continues to demonstrate an insatiable thirst for knowledge and we used our time together to discuss a range of topics including democracy, authoritarianism, governance, crypto technologies, artificial intelligence, society and culture, history, Judaism, modes of transportation, and more.

Athens looks like a city that peaked a few centuries ago. It's grimy. Most Greeks seem to be depressed about the economy. There's a lot of animosity and anger towards the Germans (after all, they were the ones demanding 'austerity').  Over 500,000 young Greeks have left the county in the last 9 years. The 'brain drain' is real.

Meanwhile, the country is flailing about as it tries to figure out a way to pay for its excessive expenditures against limited revenues.  One thing that stuck out at me were signs in English and Chinese offering permanent residency and a path to citizenship for anyone who invested 250k Euros into real estate.

Essentially, the Greeks are offering to sell the land out from under their feet.  Should be fascinating to watch that.

So, modern-day Greece is depressing.  Ancient Greece's contribution to the world, however, should not be underestimated.  Leaving aside our modern sensibilities in terms of who gets to participate in the democratic process, their innovation was revolutionary.

They had term limits. There was a lottery for public roles. Everyone was expected to participate.

Plato, interestingly enough, didn't like the idea as he was afraid of "the mob"...which we basically have today on Twitter. He thought that a groomed elite was the way to go.

After 2 days in Athens, which included a visit to the Chabad house and a Greek sephardi synagogue, we took off to the tourist destination of Santorini.  Most of the year, it has a population of 15,000. In the summer, there are over 100k people on the island. 4 cruise ships stop there every day.  Yet, despite all of that, the peace and tranquility of the island, which is actually a 'caldera'-formed when a volcano collapses in upon itself and the water rushes in- is remarkable. 

Waking up to that vista every morning was just what the doctor ordered.  

We took some side excursions, most notably to Akrotiri- the archaeological site of a prehistoric Minoan civilization that demonstrated remarkable technical advancement for its time.

Overall, a great trip and I am very grateful that I had the chance to go.  Some pics are below.

Santorini has some tremendous sunsets.

Some of the cruise ships in the caldera.

The town of Fira.

Another sunset.

Father and son on the ferry from Athens to Santori.

The water of the Aegean is so blue.

The "Greek Freak" is a big deal.

The Parthenon. An impressive architectural site.

The Parthenon is a building. The Acropolis is the hill upon which it (and the other temples surrounding it) are situated.

The temple to Poseidon.

We scored a rooftop view from our hotel of the Parthenon.

Not bad.

Athens may be grimy, but it also has some wonderful sunsets as it is situated in a "bowl' surrounded by mountains. The area is known as "Attica."

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.