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Ask the right questions

How should we program driverless cars to respond to life-and-death situations?  That’s the question posed by computational social scientist Iyad Rahwan in his recent Ted Talk.

His answer?

It’s a good question.


Dance with the Darkness

Conquer Laziness by Starting Small

Readers of a certain age may remember an old Goodyear tire commercial with the tag line, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”

The applications go way beyond auto repair. That’s what Shaomin Li, professor of international business at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, discovered on a business trip to Taiwan.

As he was being chauffeured from one venue to the next, Professor Li noticed that his host always backed into parking lot spaces, opting for often tricky and laborious maneuvering over the simpler method of pulling in straight forward.

Detecting a wider pattern of behavior, Professor Li conducted his own experiment. He discovered that 88% of Chinese drivers back in when they park, in contrast to 6% of American drivers.

“All of a sudden,” recounts Professor Li, “I said, gee – isn’t this delayed gratification?”

We shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on a single study, but this observation does not appear in a vacuum. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell investigates the popular stereotype that transplanted Asians excel academically and professionally compared with homegrown Americans.

Mr. Gladwell discovered that the stereotype is much more accurate among southern Chinese than among northern Chinese, and he identifies a single reason for the difference:

Rice paddies.

Click here to read the whole article.

8 Questions for Making Better Choices

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. His particular genius for collecting data and weaving together fresh insights has produced a wealth of practical wisdom to help us improve the quality of our lives.

But nobody’s perfect.

I disqualified Mr. Gladwell for sainthood after coming across his 2004 Ted Talk, in which he recounted the career of one Howard Moskowitz, a psychophysicist whose market research for Pepsi Cola, Vlasic Pickles, and Prego Spaghetti Sauce — beginning back in the early 70s — changed the food industry forever. It might seem obvious to us with the wisdom of hindsight but, to make a long story short, Howard Moskowitz discovered that there is no perfect pickle, no ideal type of cola, and no universal favorite recipe for spaghetti sauce.

As a result, we’ve ended up with:

  • 7 different kinds of vinegar
  • 14 different types of mustard
  • 36 varieties of Ragu spaghetti sauce
  • 71 variations of olive oil.

And as options increase, prices go up.  But Mr. Gladwell tells us it’s all worth it:

That is the final, and I think most beautiful lesson, of Howard Moskowitz: that in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.

And it is here that Malcolm Gladwell exits the highway of reason by turning off onto the backstreets of phantasmagoria.

Click to read the rest.

Harry Potter and the Ashes of the Temple

In spite of its exceptional popularity, or perhaps because of it, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series produced its own share of controversy. Critics complained that Harry is a chronic rule-breaker, that the vividly depicted magical backdrop will divorce children from reality, and that the books instill no redeeming social values in the children who read them.

It is true that Harry does demonstrate a certain disregard for rules and regulations, but he is openly criticized by his friends and teachers alike for this, and he gets into trouble as often as not on account of his rule breaking.

It is also true that Ms. Rowling’s depictions of a magical world are mesmerizing in their detail and verisimilitude, but it’s precisely this vivid imagery that has turned millions of television-addicted preadolescents into avid readers. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine any book causing children to become more detached from reality than the glut of fanciful movies, video games, and trading cards with which they come into contact daily.

The third argument, however, is where Harry’s critics really miss the boat. The books are steeped in such universal ethical lessons as honesty, discipline, and loyalty, to mention only a few. And from a Jewish perspective, Harry Potter can offer our children (and us as well) a contemporary insight into the destruction of the Temple that we commemorate today, on the 9th day of the month of Av.

Throughout the Harry Potter series, many of the advocates of evil and the defenders of good share a common character trait: an irrational insistence upon the “purity of blood.” Although the leader of the forces of evil himself comes from a mixed background, his followers are dedicated to purging the wizarding world of “mudbloods,” those who have non-wizard blood flowing in their veins.

But it isn’t just the wicked who display this kind of genealogical prejudice. Many of the defenders of good, even as evil threatens to destroy them and their society, refuse to join forces with potential allies because of irrational prejudices.

J. K. Rowling may never have studied Jewish history, but her series provides a perfect parable for the causes of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Even as the Roman siege upon Jerusalem tightened, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Sicarii, the Essenes, and other radical groups refused to address the common danger that threatened every Jew, sometimes even forming alliances with the Romans in hope of gaining the upper hand over their political enemies within the Jewish people. The Romans exploited this infighting until both the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish nation was broken.

The Talmud tells us the cause of the destruction was senseless hatred. Jew hated Jew not for what he did but for how he identified himself. Instead of recognizing how much they had in common, instead of strengthening their commitment to Jewish values, instead of working together in the face of a common enemy, Jews squabbled over political agendas and schemed for political gain, deaf to the entreaties of the sages that they set aside their differences, blind to the impending holocaust that Rome would bring down upon them.

Nearly 2000 years later, we are still quarreling senselessly with one another and overlooking enemies who seek our destruction. If we haven’t learned the lessons of our own tradition, perhaps we can learn a lesson from Harry Potter’s headmaster, Dumbledore: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Of course, the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva said it more simply in aftermath of the Temple’s destruction: “Love your fellow as yourself: this is the great principle of the Torah.”

What makes him your “fellow”? That he chooses good over evil. And how do you love him? By setting aside your differences and seeing him for who he is, not for what he believes — and certainly not for what he calls himself.

Originally published in 2001 by Jewish World Review.

You never know…

There’s common and there’s sense


A day like no other, a place like no other

June 7, 1967, is a date planted forever in my memory.  It was on that day my family moved into the house I grew up in.

Decades later, I discovered that it was also the day when the Jewish people reclaimed sovereignty over their eternal capital after 2000 years of foreign rule.

I didn’t just grow up in the house that became my home.  I saw it built, literally from the ground up.  My father was the contractor, so I watched as trenches were dug for water and sewage pipes, as concrete was poured for the foundation, as wooden framing gave it shape and stucco exterior transformed it into a dwelling.

I was six years old the day we moved in.  For the next eleven years, that house was the place that sheltered me from the uncertainties of life and gave me refuge from all the scrapes and traumas of childhood and adolescence.

But then something unexpected happened.  I went away to college.  I made new friends.  I experienced the thrill of new ideas and the passion of intellectual exchange.  And when summer arrived and I returned to visit my parents, the place they lived was just a house, just a way-station for waiting out the days until I went back to where I belonged.

The following year my parents sold the house.  I never missed it.

But college didn’t remain home, either.  Even before graduation, I felt something pulling at me, calling me to search somewhere else for home.


I remember the day before I first arrived in Israel.  The ship that carried me cut across a Mediterranean Sea as still and clear as a sheet of glass, utterly surreal as it reflected the color of the sky.  Night descended, and the lights of Haifa glittered on the water.  Israel was not my first port of call, but an inexplicable feeling of anticipation stirred inside me, a feeling that could only be described with one word:


The next afternoon I was in Jerusalem; by an unlikely turn of events, I found myself being led through the stone labyrinth that is the Old City.  As dusk fell on that Friday evening, I turned a corner and found myself face-to-face with the ancient stones drenched by generations of tears.

In that instant, everything stopped.

I knew nothing about my own heritage, nothing about Jewish tradition or Jewish history.  I’d heard of the Western Wall, heard it called the Wailing Wall, but that was all I knew.  I’d heard of the Sabbath, but the word meant nothing to me except as a holy anachronism.  I wasn’t even sure if I believed in God.

But right then, as the last rays of the sun caught the top of those living stones and the mingled voices of hundreds of faithful wafted up from the courtyard, I felt an irrefutable connection to the three thousand years of tradition, devotion, and moral freedom that has kept my people alive while the countless empires that tried to destroy us have all vanished from the earth.

I had no memory of the iconic picture of the Israeli soldiers looking up in awe and wonder at the moment they liberated the Wall.  But in a single moment, 14 years later, I felt what they must have felt:  the vastness of infinity and the echo of destiny.  I couldn’t imagine how I had lived my life without knowing what this was or what it meant.  And my life has never been the same.


50 years ago today, according to the Hebrew calendar, on the 28th day of the month of Iyar, a small company of Israeli soldiers charged through Lion’s Gate and into the Old City of Jerusalem.  Winding their way through the narrow passageways, they emerged at the epicenter of world history, at the last surviving remnant of the physical Temple from which the light of divine wisdom illuminated the world so many lifetimes ago.

The battle was over.  But the war would go on.

The war goes on still:  the war against self-serving leaders who oppress their own people, turning victimhood into a weapon against the tiny Jewish nation that wants only to live in peace; the war against irresponsible journalists who fabricate monoliths of falsehood from splinters of fractured truth; the war against well-meaning fools who enable the purveyors of hatred and bloodshed by legitimizing their cause; and the war against ignorance of history, which permits the loudest voices to rewrite the past.

But these are battles we will win.  Because ultimately, Jerusalem is our capital and Israel is our true home, our only home.  We built her from the ground up; we gave our lives for her and placed our souls under her protection.  We will never abandon her; and she will never abandon us.

As long as we remember all Jerusalem stands for, we will carry her in our hearts and in our minds wherever we go, wherever we are.  We will never stop fighting against ignorance and injustice, and we will never doubt the inevitable and undeniable truth of the words we cry out again and again, Next year in Jerusalem!

Published in Jewish World Review.

Sight Unseen