Movable metal type and composing stick –descended from Gutenberg's press. Photo from Wikipedia

Technology and the age of broken tablets

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried once speculated that people in the 1400s wandered around thinking, “Wow — this is a long time ago.” It was a long time ago, but some things don’t change.  

If you actually lived in the beginning of the 15th century and had internet access, the conquests of Tamerlane would be in the headlines every day. You would be convinced that his savagery and legacy were the most important things in the world. After all, politics rules the world, right? 

Yet just a few short years later, in the small German town of Mainz, a man named Gutenberg was born and soon began experimenting with movable type. Those experiments, leading to the printing press, would prove infinitely more influential than all of Tamerlane’s sieges and slaughters.

If you read the headlines today, you would believe that the only consequential events revolve around another world leader whose name also begins with “T.” Yet there are developments that are changing our world far more than politics, and there is a powerful way to understand them from the Torah.

Recently, I attended a series of conferences where leaders in technology, science and venture capital sat around talking about their lives and concerns. I moderated a panel on ethics and technology, and we discussed the most frightening and promising developments in technology. Three pre-eminent concerns were featured.

The first was CRISPR. CRISPR is a technique that enables scientists to edit the human genome. So CRISPR has momentous implications in the prevention and cure of disease. But it is also the basis for possible interventions of a different sort: to determine our characteristics and the characteristics of our children. Aspirations are growing to edit all kinds of features — children who will be taller, smarter, have green eyes or blond hair or less anxiety or more ambition. Some experts believe these are many years off; others see more imminent possibilities. But of course this is a beachhead, and research will not end with CRISPR. 

What if you really could design the child you want? What if less scrupulous nations bred for soldiers (less empathy, greater aggression), or any of a thousand (million?) other combinations that we can only imagine?

Such things seem remote, but experimentation already has begun. One of the technologists spoke about an attempt underway in Singapore to select and manipulate embryos for greater intelligence. We tend to disregard how quickly changes happen because we swim in their wake. Twenty-five years ago, the idea that you would spend all your time staring at a small screen that contained all of human knowledge would have seemed impossible. But you have that device in your pocket as you read this.

There are other techniques that similarly challenge our way of seeing ourselves. Transcranial direct current stimulation is a method of running electric currents into particular parts of the brain. It not only has effects on mood but in some experiments has changed moral decision-making, levels of altruism and other things we think of as part of our basic personality. If I can make you repentant by a jolt of current into your prefrontal cortex, Yom Kippur becomes a very different enterprise.

The second looming shock wave is a contraction of jobs as a result of a variety of technological advances. Self-driving cars — five years away? Ten? Estimates vary, but within a decade, according to most experts, we’ll see the end of the careers of every Uber, taxi and truck driver. It also will save lives, space and air quality. But what will the millions whose jobs are eliminated do to earn a living? Many of them are no longer young and retraining will not be easy. What are we doing to prepare for it?

Self-driving cars are only one impending change. At my session, a man from the Philippines said his company had tested an automated complaint response system that was able to “learn” from feedback to responses. In short order, the automated system was preferred by customers to the best human responders. What will happen to call centers, bank tellers, travel agents and all those people who interrupt your dinner with offers of condos in Palm Beach? Combine fewer jobs with longer lives and we are facing a social dislocation greater than we have known in millennia.

The third area cited most often by technologists and futurists is artificial intelligence (AI). I once met Marion Tinsley, the greatest checkers player ever. He died a decade before computers thoroughly mastered the game and became unbeatable. When I was a high school tournament chess player, no chess-playing machine could beat a competent amateur. Now a simple desktop program can defeat the world champion. Last year, the most complex strategy board game, Go, was conquered by computers, ahead of expectations. Computers can diagnose diseases without ever having a bad day, a fight at home, too little sleep or a simple oversight. 

All of this without even reckoning that we might create machines that outwit us. One thought experiment proposed by philosopher Nick Bostrom illustrating such dangers concerns a “paper clip machine.” 

Say one day we create a superintelligence, and we ask it to make as many paper clips as possible. Maybe we built it to run our paper-clip factory. If we were to think through what it actually would mean to configure the universe in a way that maximizes the number of paper clips that exist, you realize that such an AI would have incentives, instrumental reasons, to harm humans.

Human bodies consist of a lot of atoms and they can be used to build more paper clips. If you plug into a superintelligent machine with almost any goal you can imagine, most goals would be inconsistent with the survival and flourishing of the human civilization.

Bostrom, like engineer, inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk, thinks artificial intelligence is a very dangerous thing. Musk has said it is humanity’s “biggest existential threat.” 

These and many other changes are challenges that loom larger than any we have ever faced. It is true, as my brother Paul, a bioethicist who chairs the Center for Ethics at Emory University, has written, “We have changed nature since we crawled out of the trees.” But today’s techniques are incrementally more powerful. We are not only changing technology, we are in sight of fundamentally altering human capacity. That is new, astonishing, promising and terrifying.

When Moses came down the mountain with the tablets, he had in his hand the Divine word. After he saw the golden calf, he smashed the tablets. Heading back up the mountain, on God’s instructions, he carved the second set with his own hand. Now we would live with a humanly crafted set of rules, based on God, but fashioned by human beings.

We live in the age of the broken tablets. To know the essentials of life — climate, human biology, the creation and extinction of species — remained part of the God-fashioned order. No longer. Now our hand is writing the letters.

The wisdom of tradition has never been more urgent. While each day the cable news channels and newspaper headlines scream about politics, the world is shifting from under our feet. Today’s election will pale compared with tomorrow’s advance in the laboratory. Gutenberg meant more than Tamerlane. What we printed with Gutenberg’s invention changed the world. In 1455, the great book that Gutenberg chose to print was the Bible.

We need to think about the values we treasure, the world we create and the tablets we are writing. The Torah must be both adopted and adapted in this new world. We stand again at Sinai, and the revelation, dark or bright, is in our hands.

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).

Health apps appeal to a variety of Jewish needs

Whether you are interested in bringing more Judaism into your daily yoga practice or you are concerned about the halachic acceptability of tattooing for cancer radiation therapy, a number of Jewish-minded smartphone apps are available to help you on your journey toward better health.

Kabbalah Yoga: Ambitious Beginner

If you’ve heard about the health benefits of yoga but aren’t sure where to begin, this app is for you. With easy-to-follow videos that incorporate kabbalah and meditation into introductory yogic practices, it brings the physical and emotional benefits of yoga within reach. The app ($4.99) also includes a workout journal so you can mark your physical and spiritual progress. Those who practice yoga regularly report lower levels of stress and better sleep. And for people with thinning bones, even introductory-level yoga is considered a weight-bearing activity that can help build bone density.

Nishmat: Jewish Women’s Health

The intersection of women’s health and halachic law sometimes can be a tricky and potentially embarrassing topic to broach with medical professionals outside the religious community. With this free, easy-to-navigate app, women of all ages can find answers to even the most difficult personal health questions. The app clarifies Jewish law on topics like contraception, gynecological exams, infertility, lactation, obstetrics and oncology, without belittling or ignoring the most complicated issues a woman might face, including the use of medical tattooing for radiation treatment. While the app was created to help health professionals understand how best to treat their patients, it also has been a useful tool for women seeking to understand how their medical treatment can affect their body, and how they can engage with their partner during and after treatment.

Gene Screen

With a focus on Diaspora Ashkenazi Jews, Gene Screen is a free interactive app that allows users to understand the basics of population genetics, as well as the most common genetic diseases they might be susceptible to. Learn about recessive and dominant genes, play with drag-and-drop Punnett squares, and compare the prevalence of specific genetic diseases between the Ashkenazic population of the United States and the general U.S. population. The iOS-only app also links to a variety of websites that delve into details about genetics and offer genetic testing, including sites such as the Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases.


This app allows the user to personalize a kosher meal and grocery plan that can be of assistance in reaching health goals while also allowing the user to remain religiously observant. First, users set up a personal profile with their current height, weight, activity level and desired weight. They then can create a tailor-made diet framework to help them pursue a specific dietary goal, whether it be lowering sugar or salt intake, becoming vegetarian or avoiding food allergens. The free app also has a feature that allows users to scan bar codes on items at the grocery store, which delivers nutrition information about the products and whether they contain ingredients the user should be avoiding.

Pepper, a humanoid robot designed to be “kindly, endearing, and surprising.” Photo courtesy of OECD 2016 Forum/Flickr.

Why we should fear emotionally manipulative robots

Artificial intelligence is learning how to exploit human psychology for profit

“Keep going straight here!”

“Err, that’s not what the app is telling me to do.”

“Yes, but it’s faster this way. The app is taking you to the beltway. Traffic is terrible there!”

“OK. I don’t know these roads.”

So went a conversation with an Uber driver in northern Virginia recently. But imagine it was a self-driving Uber. Would you even have that conversation, or would you be doomed to a frustrating 25 minutes on the beltway when you could have been home in 15?

And as your frustration mounts, will the AI driving the car recognize this—or appear to—and respond accordingly? Will customers prefer cars that seem to empathize?

Or imagine instead that you and your partner are arguing in the back seat over which route to take. How will you feel when your partner seems to be siding with the machine? Or the machine is siding with your partner?

Empathy is widely praised as a good thing. But it also has its dark sides: empathy can be manipulated and it leads people to unthinkingly take sides in conflicts. Add robots to this mix, and the potential for things to go wrong multiplies. Give robots the capacity to appear empathetic, and the potential for trouble is even greater.

To know why this is a problem, it helps to understand how empathy works in our daily lives. Many of our interactions involve seeking empathy from others. People aim to elicit empathy because it’s taken as a proxy for rational support. For example, the guy in front of you at an auto repair shop tells the agent that he wants his money back: “The repair you did last month didn’t work out.” The agent replies: “I’m sorry, but this brake issue is an unrelated and new repair.” The argument continues, and the customer is getting angry. It seems like he might even punch the agent.

But instead, at this point, the customer and the agent might both look to you. Humans constantly recruit bystanders. Taking sides helps to settle things before they escalate. If it’s two against one, the one usually backs down. A lot of conflicts thereby get resolved without violence. (Compare chimpanzees, where fights often lead to serious injury.) Our tendency to make quick judgments and to take sides in conflicts among strangers is one of the key features of our species.

When we take sides, we assume the perspective of our chosen side—and from here it is a short step to develop emotional empathy. According to the three-person model of empathy introduced by Breithaupt, this is not entirely positive, because the dynamic of side-taking makes the first side we take stick, and we therefore assume that our side is right, and the other side is wrong. In this way, empathy accelerates divisions. Further, we typically view this empathy as an act of approval that extends to our consequent actions, including, for example, lashing back at the other side.

Now let’s imagine that the agent at the repair shop is a robot. The robot may appeal to you, a supposedly neutral third party, to help it to persuade the frustrated customer to accept the charge. It might say: “Please trust me, sir. I am a robot and programmed not to lie.”

Sounds harmless enough, does it? But suppose the robot has been programmed to learn about human interactions. It will pick up on social strategies that work for its purposes. It may become very good at bystander recruitment. It knows how to get you to agree with its perspective and against the other customer’s. The robot could even provide perfect cover for an unscrupulous garage owner who stands to make some extra money with unnecessary repairs.

You might be skeptical that humans would empathize with a robot. Social robotics has already begun to explore this question. And experiments suggest that children will side with robots against people when they perceive that the robots are being mistreated. In one study, a team of American and Japanese researchers carried out an experiment in which children played several rounds of a game with a robot. Later the game was interrupted by an overzealous confederate of the experimenters, who ordered the robot into a closet before the game was over. The robot complained and pleaded not to be sent into the closet before the game could be completed. The children indicated that they identified socially with the robot and against the experimenter.

We also know that when bystanders watch a robot and a person arguing, they may take the side of the robot and may start to develop something like empathy for the machine. We already have some anecdotal evidence for this effect from traffic-directing robots in Kinshasa. According to photojournalist Brian Sokol in The Guardian newspaper, “People on the streets apparently respect the robots … they don’t follow directions from human traffic cops.” Similarly, a study conducted at Harvard demonstrated that students were willing to help a robot enter secured residential areas simply because it asked to be let in, raising questions about the potential dangers posed by the human tendency to respect a request from a machine that needs help.

It is a relatively short step from robots that passively engage human empathy to robots that actively recruit bystanders. Robots will provoke empathy in situations of conflict. They will draw humans to their side and will learn to pick up on the signals that work. Bystander support will then mean that robots can accomplish what they are programmed to accomplish—whether that is calming down customers, or redirecting attention, or marketing products, or isolating competitors. Or selling propaganda and manipulating opinions.

It would be naive to think that A.I. corporations will not make us guinea pigs in their experiments with developing human empathy for robots. (Humans are already guinea pigs in experiments being run by the manufacturers of self-driving cars.) The robots will not shed tears, but may use various strategies to make the other (human) side appear overtly emotional and irrational. This may also include deliberately infuriating the other side. Humans will become unwitting participants in an apparatus increasingly controlled by AI with the capacity to manipulate empathy. And suddenly, we will have empathy with robots, and find ourselves taking their sides against fellow human beings.

When people imagine empathy by machines, they often think about selfless robot-nurses and robot suicide helplines, or perhaps also robot sex. In all of these, machines seem to be in the service of the human. However, the hidden aspects of robot empathy are the commercial interests that will drive its development. Whose interests will dominate when learning machines can outwit not only their customers but also their owners?

Researchers now speculate about whether machines will learn genuine empathy. But that question is a distraction from the more immediate issue, which is that machines will not “feel” what humans feel, even if they get good at naming human emotions and responding to them. (At least for a while.) But in the near future, it doesn’t matter which emotions machines have. What is important is which emotions they can produce in humans, and how well they learn to master and manipulate these human responses. Instead of AI with empathy, we should be more concerned about humans having misplaced empathy with AI.

Colin Allen is a philosopher and cognitive scientist who has been teaching at Indiana University since 2004, but is moving to the University of Pittsburgh in fall of 2017. His research spans animal cognition, artificial intelligence, and foundational issues in cognitive science, and he is coauthor of the book Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong. Follow him on Twitter: @wylieprof.

Fritz Breithaupt is a humanities scholar and cognitive scientist at Indiana University. His current research focusses on empathy, narratives, and 18th century literature. His lab ( works with serial reproduction of narratives, that is, telephone games.  His newest book, The Dark Sides of Empathy, is forthcoming in spring 2018. Follow him on Twitter: @FritzBreithaupt.

This essay is part of a Zócalo Inquiry, Is Empathy the 20th Century’s Most Powerful Invention?

THE CIRCLE *Movie Review*

The Circle is based on the 2013 Dave Eggers novel of the same name.  When Mae (Emma Watson) begins working at the technology giant the Circle, she doesn’t quite believe it’s as amazing as her co-workers claim.  As she becomes more ensconced in life at the Circle, she begins to believe the company’s claims.  At the Circle’s helm is Tom Hanks, an ideal casting that capitalizes on his Every Man persona.  While we as an audience have been conditioned to trust his every word, the trust is at odds with the movie’s message.

Voyeurism and technology are the core of The Circle.  These themes have long been the subject of dystopian novels as well as Hollywood fiction.  When we’re watched, are we at our best or at our worst?  Mae thinks she behaves better knowing she’s under constant observation from the Circle’s ever-present wireless cameras. What is it that makes the concept of observation both a threat and a judge?

In a world–our world–where technology allows for a shared experience, the concept of not sharing equates to keeping secrets.  And secrets are lies.  That’s Mae’s mantra from the moment she, too, begins to buy what the Circle is selling.

For more about The Circle and other movies with similar themes, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with Zoe Hewitt on social media @RealZoeHewitt on Twitter and Instagram.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.



Payoneer is one of a few Israeli financial startups making waves in the United States and around the world.

Israeli firms revolutionizing financial technology

If it has been a long time since you’ve waited for a bank teller, called your stockbroker or mailed a check, you can thank financial technology (fintech). And much of that innovation in how we move and protect our money is coming from Israel.

According to The Floor fintech startup hub in Tel Aviv, at least 430 Israeli fintech companies are developing products for needs ranging from digital banking to fundraising.

Israel’s reputation in deep data science has lured some $650 million in venture capital for the fintech sector. Financial institutions including Citibank and Barclays have established innovation labs and accelerators in the startup nation.

“Technology for financial institutions has to be extremely robust and that’s where Israel excels,” said Liat Aaronson, a partner in Marker, a venture capital and growth equity firm based in Herzliya and New York. “We’re far from the market and that makes it hard to do validation and proof of concept, but despite that, over the last few years, we’re seeing more and more banks and other fintech players coming here to offer open innovation projects and scouting innovation in Israel.”

Aaronson previously headed the Zell Entrepreneurship Program at IDC Herzliya, where many successful fintech entrepreneurs got their start. “I think we’re still on the cusp of something that is going to continue to grow,” she said.

Here are 18 of many Israeli fintech companies changing the finance world.

Payoneer, founded in 2005 by Israeli serial entrepreneur and investor Yuval Tal, has more than 700 employees globally across 12 offices, and recently completed a $180 million growth equity financing round. High-profile clients including Airbnb, Amazon and Getty Images use Payoneer’s cross-border payments platform to handle currency from more than 200 countries.

Headquartered in New York with a development center in Petah Tikva, Payoneer ranks in the top 100 of Inc. 5000’s Financial Services companies and has made Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 list for five straight years.

OurCrowd launched its global online crowd-investing platform in Jerusalem in 2013 and now has 110 portfolio companies and five investment funds in which $320 million has been invested. The OurCrowd app unlocks opportunities to accredited investors worldwide. Along with Payoneer, OurCrowd ranked among the 50 leading established fintech companies on KPMG’s 100 most promising companies list for 2016 and now has seven worldwide offices.

Lemonade, started by Israeli executives formerly with Fiverr and Powermat, is disrupting the way New Yorkers buy homeowners and renters insurance. The online and mobile platform uses bots and machine learning to deliver insurance and handle claims. Started in December 2015 with a $13 million investment, Lemonade raised $34 million in December 2016 and plans expansion to other U.S. states. Lemonade won Best New Startup of the Year at the 2017 Geek Awards.

FeeX was started in September of 2012 by Waze cofounder Uri Levine as a free service that finds lower-fee alternatives for IRA, 401(k), 403(b), brokerage and other investment-type retirement accounts. The company has offices in Herzliya and New York.

The BondIT intuitive software-as-a-service platform uses advanced machine-learning algorithms to construct yield/risk optimized portfolios to match a client’s risk profile. Focusing on the Asian market, the Herzliya-based startup was founded in 2012 and has an office in Hong Kong. BondIT was chosen to take part in the Accenture 2015 FinTech Innovation Lab Asia-Pacific.

Brazilian micro-credit company Avante recently acquired Sling, an Israeli startup that enables micro-merchants to tap into mobile financial technologies via “Slings” such as bracelets or stickers facilitating customer payments by credit or debit card. The company is expanding into Latin America and has established an innovation center in Israel.

Zooz provides a data-driven payment platform for enterprise merchants to connect with multiple payment and technology providers and route transactions through the entire payment process. Zooz has offices in San Francisco and Berlin, with an Israeli research and development center in Ra’anana. It has attracted $40.5 million in investments.

CreditPlace is a peer-to-peer investment platform based in Tel Aviv that enables investors to buy outstanding receivables owed by stable Israeli companies, state-owned enterprises and government ministries. This helps companies and businesses improve cash flow while creating an alternative low-risk, high-yield, short-term liquid investment for private investors. CreditPlace raised $1.6 million last September and plans expansion to other countries during 2017.

Fundbox, with offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco, offers a cash-flow management platform for small businesses and freelancers by purchasing outstanding invoices or giving a business-purpose loan to fill the cash-flow gap between billing and payment. The company, founded in 2013, was named to the Forbes Fintech 50 for 2016 and has raised $107.5 million.

MyCheck, founded in Tel Aviv in 2011, offers an Uber-like branded mobile payment solution for hospitality merchants (mostly restaurant chains) on three continents. Users get features including faster checkout, the ability to divide a bill and add a tip, while merchants get analytics tools and increased customer engagement.

BioCatch uses behavioral biometrics to provide behavioral authentication and malware detection solutions for web and mobile banking applications. The Tel Aviv- and New York-based company won the Global Fintech Award at the 2016 MAS’ Singapore Fintech Festival.

I Know First provides daily securities, commodities and currencies forecasts based on an advanced self-learning algorithm powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning, artificial neural networks and genetic algorithms. I Know First, based in Tel Aviv, is used by large financial institutions, banks, hedge funds and private investors.

TipRanks was among the winners of the 2016 Benzinga Global Fintech Awards and twice won “best of show” at Finovate. TipRanks was founded in 2012 to bring accurate and accountable financial advice to the general public from a comprehensive dataset of analysts, hedge fund managers, financial bloggers and corporate insiders.

TravelersBox offers a solution for travelers with leftover foreign currency. Automatic kiosks in airports in Canada, Georgia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Philippines and Turkey — with many more on the way — enable people to use that spare cash to redeem gift cards, add to their PayPal or Viber Out account, or make a charitable donation.

RevenueStream is a Herzliya company that created an artificial intelligence-based platform to detect credit card fraud in online payments instantaneously, using a relational bridge algorithm system.

Neema offers a mobile platform for unbanked foreign workers to send money home, shop and pay bills online, and purchase cellular plans. It was started three years ago in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station to serve migrant workers in Israel. Neema recently opened a San Francisco office ahead of a U.S. launch targeting some 70 million unbanked and underbanked American residents.

Covercy has a digital system for inexpensive international money transfers in 25 currencies. Covercy recently closed a $1.5 million funding round and was licensed in the United Kingdom. A 2015 graduate of Microsoft Ventures Accelerator, Covercy was on Forbes’ list of 10 best businesses at the 2016 London Technology Week.

Rewire, launched in 2015, is a digital banking service for borderless money transfers and payments geared to Israel’s unbanked international workers. Based in Tel Aviv, Rewire has almost 1,000 deposit points across Israel and offers a web-based tool for transactions to India, the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Russia. The company plans international expansion.

Rapper Kosha Dillz performing in Ventura, California, June 21, 2015. Kosha Dillz is one of the Jewish highlights at this year’s South by Southwest festival. Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images.

SXSW 2017: 5 don’t-miss Jewish events

Austin, Texas, is known for several things: authentic barbecue, hot weather, cowboys — and, increasingly each year, the ever-growing South by Southwest festival.

What began as an indie music event in the late 1980s has swelled to include multiple conferences on film and technology. Last year, over 70,000 people registered to attend the nine-day extravaganza.

As always, this year’s installment, which starts on Friday and runs until March 19, will feature plenty of Jewish artists, innovations and forums — including a session with the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, about the recent uptick in anti-Semitism. And of course, at least one Purim party.

If you’re headed to SXSW, here are some Jewish events you shouldn’t miss.

Trolls: Lessons from Online Anti-Semitism’s Rise  (March 12, 12:30 – 1:30 p.m., Hyatt Regency Austin)

After writing an article on Melania Trump in GQ last spring, journalist Julia Ioffe received so many anti-Semitic messages, including death threats, that she filed a police complaint. Sadly, she was just among the first of many Jewish journalists and other Jews active on social media to be targeted by anti-Semitic “trolls” — a term commonly used to describe belligerent online provocateurs — over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign. Ioffe, who now writes for The Atlantic, will speak with Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone about how trolls, once relegated to the fringes of the internet, are now feeling empowered.

Kosha Dillz (March 16, 1:00 a.m. – 1:25 a.m., Scratchouse)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a rapper whose stage name is a Jewish delicacy isn’t your typical hip-hop artist. The Israeli-American Kosha Dillz (real name Rami Even-Esh) has wowed crowds with his freestyle abilities for more than a decade — and he is also known for being able to rap in English, Hebrew, Spanish and Yiddish. According to his South by Southwest bio, he now teaches a class at synagogues around the country on “how to be a Jewish rapper in 45 minutes.” You can catch him at the festival as part of his Oy VEY USA tour, likely spitting tracks from his latest album “What I Do All Day And Pickle,” which he released last year.

YAASSS Queen Esther Purim party (March 12, 3:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m., Jackrabbit Mobile)

You likely have to be a fan of “Broad City,” the uber-hip sitcom created by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, to get why the title of this event is so clever. But you won’t have to get the joke to enjoy this Purim party. Hosted by the Chabad Young Professionals group in Austin, the event will include a traditional holiday megillah reading, a hamantaschen fondue bar, plenty of Purim gifts (known as misloach manot), an open bar and — what do you know — beats from Kosha Dillz.

Orkestar Kriminal (March 15, 1:00 p.m. – 1:40 p.m., Austin Convention Center; March 18, 9:00 p.m. – 9:40 p.m., Russian House)

Orkestar Kriminal is the rare band that lives up to its name, in multiple ways. The Montreal-based group plays (or steals, as band leader Giselle Webber says) songs from the Yiddish-speaking musicians who populated the the criminal underworlds that once flourished in cities such as Warsaw, Odessa and Istanbul. Think one part hyped-up klezmer, one part gypsy rock, one part utter chaos — and a heck of a live show.

Faith & Technology Meet Up (March 12, 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m., Hyatt Regency Austin)

Jews aren’t the only religious group looking to connect their faith with technology at this year’s festival. This discussion will feature the Anti-Defamation League’s Austin Community Director Renee Lafair, who, alongside Christian and Muslim speakers, will address the ways religious communities are joining together on social media to fight online hate.

On the front lines of Israel’s weaponry

The challenges of defending the Jewish state get very real in the pages of “The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower” by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot (St. Martin’s Press). Although Israel is already known and praised as “the startup nation” — the seedbed of high technology — the story of its weapons development and deployment is especially fascinating and highly consequential.

Both authors are Israeli journalists who specialize in military coverage, and they recognize that advanced weaponry is just one element of Israel’s defense strategy. “Israel relies heavily on the reputation of deterrence it has worked hard to create over the years,” they explain. “We believe that this deterrence rests on three key pillars — Israel’s purported nuclear weapons capability, its strategic alliance with the United States and the conventional capabilities of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces].” It is the third pillar that is the focus of “The Weapon Wizards.”

“Conventional,” of course, means non-nuclear, but the weaponry itself is cutting-edge. Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, for example, acknowledges that Israel’s adversaries are well-armed and that fresh attacks are unpredictable but inevitable. “We will win though,” he tells the authors, “because our soldiers will be prepared and will have the best technology to assist them.”

The tradition is deeply rooted in Zionism. At a hilltop kibbutz near Rehovot in 1945, several years before statehood, a secret ammunition factory was established so that the Jewish fighters would be properly armed despite the ban on weaponry imposed by the British occupation of Palestine. It was literally an underground facility, buried deep underneath the laundry room of the kibbutz, and sunlamps were installed so that “the ‘kibbutzniks’ making the bullets looked tanned, as if they had been out in the fields all day.” The ruse was necessary because one of the customers of the laundry was the local British army base.

By the way, Southern California — and Los Angeles’ own Lou Lenart and Al Schwimmer — figure in the stories that are told here. During the War of Independence, Lenart flew combat missions in a Czech fighter, and Schwimmer participated in the smuggling of refurbished British warplanes from Burbank to Israel in crates marked “Refrigeration Equipment.” But the whole point of “The Weapon Wizards” is that Israel resolutely set out to become a weapons developer and manufacturer in its own right, starting before statehood and continuing with ever-greater sophistication to this day.

“To survive, the Jewish state could not rely solely on foreign assistance,” the authors write. “It needed to find a way to develop its own R&D and production capabilities. It was a matter of survival.”

As early as 1969, for example, an Israeli officer on the embattled Suez Canal longed for a way to conduct surveillance on the Egyptian positions. He had seen a newsreel that included a segment about a boy who received a remote-controled (RC) model airplane as a bar mitzvah gift, and the officer bought an RC plane of his own, installed a camera, and tested the new device by asking Israeli anti-aircraft gunners to try to shoot it down. The toy airplane survived its test flight, and the drone was born. When the United States later ran into serious problems with its own drone program, “the US finally decided to ask Israel for help,” the authors write.

Israel has long distinguished itself for its mastery of small arms. The American-made M-16, for example, has not only been replaced in the IDF with an Israeli-made assault rifle called the Tavor, but the same weapon is now exported to countries around the world, “from Colombia to Azerbaijan and Macedonia to Brazil.”  But much of its genius is applied to nonlethal technology that has come to be crucial in combat, including drones and spy satellites, and protective armor that has reinvented the tank as an effective battlefield weapon. There’s also the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, and the cyber-weapon called Stuxnet, which was co-developed by Israel and the United States and reportedly destroyed some 1,000 centrifuges in Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities.

Even more remarkable is the stroke of genius that inspired the IDF to recruit soldiers with autism to scrutinize the imagery collected by drones and satellites. Recognizing that individuals with autism often possess “remarkable visual and analytical capabilities,” they are trained to pore over the raw data and pick out the nuggets of intelligence. “If a bush moves a few feet or a building is slightly enlarged, they will pick up on it,” the authors explain. “To the average eye, these topographic changes might seem natural and be missed. But for [the autistic soldiers] they could mean that a rocket launcher or an arms cache is present but hidden.”

Israel’s accomplishments in weapons development can be explained by one of the hard facts of life in the Jewish state — almost everyone serves in the military, and the military is regularly called on to fight. “This means that engineers who work for defense companies meet soldiers not just in boardroom meetings to look over new weapons designs, but also during reserve stints, when they themselves put on uniforms and become soldiers again,” the authors write. As one weapons-maker puts it: “We know what it means to sit in a military vehicle, what it’s like to hit an explosive device or take a burst of gunfire.”

8th Annual Lumiere Awards Recognizing Cutting-Edge Technology

Warner Bros, an innovative movie and television studio, served as the perfect backdrop for the 8th Annual Lumiere Awards.  These awards recognize how cutting-edge content combines with exciting new technology.

The Advanced Imagining Society (AIS) and the Virtual Reality Society are title sponsors for the evening’s awards.  AIS President and CEO Jim Chabin says: “Tonight we have movie makers here who are dying to see the [virtual reality] work.  We have [virtual reality] people who are dying to see the moviemakers’ work.  [They’re] all creators of great content.  It’s the new thing and it will take a few years but fans are going to love it because they’re going to be in the movie.”

In addition to the competitive award categories, prolific director-producer-writer multi-hyphenate Jon Favreau was honored with the Harold Lloyd Award.  HTC Vive Co-founder and chairperson Cher Wang was honored with the Sir Charles Wheatstone Award.  Google Earth VR was honored with the Century Award.

Zoe Hewitt was on the red carpet to speak with some of the esteemed honorees, presenters and attendees including Jon Favreau (IRON MAN, THE JUNGLE BOOK), Ivan Reitman (GHOSTBUSTERS), Ed Begley Jr (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) and Robert Stromberg (Oscar-winning designer for AVATAR).  For more about the innovative virtual reality technology and its application in life as well as the movies, take a look below:





—>Looking for the direct links to the videos?  Click here for Jon Favreau.  Click here for Ivan Reitman.  Click here for Ed Begley Jr.  Click here for Robert Stromberg.


STEAM-powered fun for kids and teens

It’s no secret that educators are finding magic in forward-thinking and multidisciplinary STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) curricula. For parents looking to bring a little of that home, there are plenty of hot items out on the market to help. Here are a few favorites suggested by area educators.

The free “SWIFT PLAYGROUNDS” app (pictured above) for the iPad (no age appropriateness suggested) uses puzzles and games to teach Apple’s powerful coding language used for making many of today’s popular apps. That’s an important head start on college — and whatever comes next, according to Rick St. Laurent, principal of general studies at YULA Boys High School. “Getting teens started with coding early is vital to their future education,” he said. ” target=”_blank”>

” target=”_blank”>

” target=”_blank”>

” target=”_blank”>

Is Israel-California partnership paying dividends?

California Gov. Jerry Brown had some choice words for Glenn Yago.

The Milken Institute, the Santa Monica-based think tank that employs Yago, has provided a good deal of citizen muscle behind a March 2014 agreement Brown signed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that pledges to deepen ties between the two states.

Though he’s neither a politician nor a diplomat, Yago, a financial economist, is a crucial figure in implementing that memorandum of understanding (MOU).

When the two encountered each other at a posh conference at the Beverly Hilton in May 2015, Brown wanted Yago to understand something about the California-Israel MOU: “This is not just a press release,” Yago recalls the governor telling him.

Not all MOUs are created equal

The memorandum Israel signs intermittently with the U.S. government, for instance, including one currently in the final stages, determines the amount of military aid Israel will get. The document Brown signed in Mountain View (near San Jose) is not that concrete. In fact, it has more in common with a press release than, say, a trade agreement.

The MOU lays out bold blueprints for collaboration but brackets them in qualifiers such as “plan” and “intend.” In the final paragraph, almost as a postscript, it notes that it “does not create any legally binding rights or obligations for either Participant.”

In interviews with the Journal, leaders involved in the memo’s implementation noted a political paradox it creates: It is at once a diplomatic watershed and a more or less pie-in-the-sky 493 words of text.

In the words of Gili Ovadia, the head of the Israel Economic Mission to the West Coast, the treaty is “political paper.”

“The memorandum of understanding isn’t worth a lot,” Ovadia said.

But the “amazing atmosphere” it creates has to be worth something, he said.

Ovadia spoke with the Journal from his San Francisco office the day after he returned from a trip to Southern California for two back-to-back symposia on water innovation in Marina del Rey and San Diego.

Appraising the memo, he said, “It doesn’t really have money. It doesn’t have people. It doesn’t have mechanisms. It was just a piece of paper signed by two really important men — maybe the most important people for [California and Israel]. I think it generates a lot of interest, a lot of attention, a lot of press.”

He attributed the water conference, for instance, in part to momentum from the MOU.

By itself, though, it doesn’t do much of anything.

“That’s always the challenge with MOUs,” said Yaki Lopez, consul for political affairs at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles. “To make sure they’re action-oriented, to make sure it’s not just ink on paper.”

Lopez called the MOU “the crown jewel” of all the accomplishments of West Coast Consul General of Israel David Siegel, who completed his post here at the end of July, after five years of service in Los Angeles and the Southwest.

Asked to pinpoint its impact over the more than two years it has been on the books, Lopez, like Ovadia, mentioned the optics: “It created a whole exciting and vibrant atmosphere for the two states to work together.”

If anybody should be able to point to tangible outcomes, it’s Yago, an informal evangelist for collaboration between California and Israel who divides his time between the two.

As the head of the Milken Institute’s Financial Innovation Lab, his job is more or less to figure out how to stimulate technology transfer, in particular these days from Israel to California.

“There are some very concrete, tangible results going on right now,” he said. “People are working on specific projects. Everything from perchlorate remediation of groundwater contamination in the San Fernando Valley to putting in rain catchment for toilets in schools in San Diego and in L.A.”

The proliferation of projects being undertaken under the Milken Institute’s umbrella can’t be claimed as direct outcomes of the MOU, although each received a boost when Netanyahu and Brown shook hands like exuberant new business partners.

“You need air cover to start working on these things,” Yago said.

A ‘cascading effect’

In most discussions of California-Israel collaboration, water is first and foremost.

While California and Israel share a parched climate, Israel, unlike the Golden State, is a water exporter. Policymakers here point to this difference as evidence that Sacramento could learn a thing or two from the Israeli model.

But the state of California has a weak regulatory grip on water use, and an alphabet soup of local agencies are most directly responsible for keeping the taps running.

So it’s not the statewide agreement but rather a series of local and municipal pacts in Southern California that it inspired which have generated Israel buzz over the past two years.

L.A. City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield was the intellectual grandfather of the MOU. A bill he wrote but that didn’t pass while he was serving in the state assembly eventually formed the template for a letter of intent then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed outlining the need for an MOU, and ultimately for the MOU itself, he said.

He’s also among the first local officials to apply the MOU as a mandate for collaboration at the municipal level.

“At lunch right after the signing ceremony, I said to myself and the folks who were around me, ‘I want L.A. to be the first city to implement this thing,’” he said in an interview. “And so the Israel-Los Angeles task force was born.”

In October 2014, the task force met for the first time, building on L.A.’s sister-city relationship with Eilat, a council of Israeli industry leaders and city officials aimed at harnessing Israeli innovation to the city’s struggles.

The brokering of diplomatic relationships between local governments and the Israelis has boomed since Brown and Netanyahu consecrated the practice — a phenomenon Lopez described as a “cascading effect.”

On Sept. 1, 2015, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Beverly Hills City Council voted on the same evening to partner with Israel on a number of issues, beginning with water conservation.

For climatic reasons, water is normally the first item on the agenda, but it’s not the only one. The Brown-Netanyahu pact highlighted water, alternative energy, health and biotechnology, cybersecurity, arts and culture, education and agricultural technology.

The day after Ovadia attended the water conference in Marina del Rey, a summit brought Israeli and Californian cybersecurity leaders together at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

Addressing the audience from the stage in the main theater, Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch said the prosperous city hopes to leverage Israeli network protection as it integrates driverless cars into its public transportation grids.

“That’s what our relationship is about — is finding solutions,” he said.

The latest step forward in Israel’s trickle-down diplomacy in California was a unanimous vote by 37 local elected officials who make up the regional council of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) — a technocratic inter-government agency.

On June 7, SCAG approved an MOU with its Israeli counterpart.

Like the March 2014 accord, the agreement with the Federation of Local Governments in Israel is an equivocal document. Studded by the words “whereas” and “may,” it also “does not create any legally binding rights or obligations for either Participant.”

It does, however, include 18 million Californians in 191 cities and six counties — L.A., Orange, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Imperial and Ventura — under some sort of Israel MOU endorsed by their local elected officials.

It also adds smart growth, emergency preparedness, public safety and the startup ecosystem to the list of focus areas provided by the Mountain View agreement.

The Israeli-American Nexus (IAX) and the Israeli American Council (IAC), both prominent and well-connected nonprofits in L.A., acted as citizen diplomats in facilitating the agreement. But the political will was furnished by the two heads of state.

That handshake “definitely paved the way for this partnership,” said IAX and IAC official Shawn Evenhaim, a local developer.

In an interview with the Journal, Evenhaim sounded a lot like Brown in his directive to Glenn Yago in July 2015: “The intention of this was not to sign a document and file it somewhere.”

How to import chutzpah

There are limits to what a contract can do, even between two heads of state.

For instance, Israel’s success in tackling its water problem is often chalked up to a certain Jewish chutzpah, and it’s much easier to import a technology patent than a cultural attitude.

Nonetheless, some have tried. The prevailing method is to put the leaders and high-ranking officials of public and private agencies on jetliners to Israel, including people such as Scott Houston.

Houston is a director of the West Basin Municipal Water District, a water agency that delivers 220,000 acre-feet of water each year to customers in an area covering much of the South Bay.

In July 2015, he traveled with the Milken Institute to Israel, where he learned, among other things, that Israel is crisscrossed by 110 miles of “purple pipe” (they’re actually purple) that carry 85 percent of its wastewater from treatment plants to farms.

But asked to summarize what he took away from the trip, he noted a tight-belted reverence for the Israeli watershed by its consumers.

“We’re trying to instill that here,” he said on the sidelines of the water conference in Marina del Rey, steps away from the Pacific Ocean.

For instance, he said, Israel seems to have overcome what he called the “ick factor,” which still gives pause to Americans: a psychological aversion to piping treated wastewater into our gardens and fields.

About a week after Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, came back from Israel, where she’d been traveling with IAC, she summed up her trip in much the same way.

“A real takeaway is the water ethic — how precious every drop of water is within the country,” she wrote in a statement to the Journal.

While there, she met at the Milken Institute’s request with a group of agriculture officials, academics and industry leaders for a daylong session on delivering Israeli solutions to California markets and vice

The working group was the latest in a series of intensive working sessions hosted by the think tank and aimed at coupling Israeli and Californian knowhow to crack tough market and sustainability problems.

“They’re kind of like mini Manhattan Projects,” Yago said of the labs. “Instead of creating a nuclear bomb, we’re trying to create solutions to global problems.”

Ross wrote in a blog post that the June 23 brainstorm had dwelled on the fact that smart agriculture technology “doesn’t generate the rate of return compared to other elements of the tech industry.”

If it did, Netafim, an Israeli company and the world’s largest drip irrigation concern, would likely see its revenues multiply.

The company encourages farmers to switch from the less efficient (and more expensive) flooding agriculture method popular in California.

Watering the plants rather than the ground, as drip irrigation purports to do, is one of the simplest ways California could imitate Israel’s portfolio of water solutions.

(Of course, Israel is already on to the next best thing: Yago mentioned a technique now in beta called precision irrigation, which involves plant growth cycles and something he called “fertigation or nutrigation.”)

Ze’ev Barylka, Netafim’s U.S. marketing director, is confident U.S. agriculture will make the switch to drip irrigation eventually, although, he said, “It’s a long process.”

It’s something his company has been pushing since it arrived in the United States 35 years ago.

“It’s very difficult to isolate what is the contribution of the MOU because we have been living [with the spirit of] the MOU for 35 years,” he said when asked about the agreement’s contribution to Netafim’s bottom line.

He went on, “It’s benefiting the [agriculture technology] sector overall in terms of visibility, activity, on the internet, in articles, in awareness, in education — all that.”

Ramifications of the agreement have yet to fully play out, according to some of its architects. A number of Israeli sustainability technologies are taking baby steps into the California market.

Blumenfield said the Department of Water & Power is currently looking into Israeli technology to clean up San Fernando Valley groundwater pollution left behind by the defense industry. But for now, “they’re studying rather than going sort of headlong.”

In the meanwhile, there are some more immediate effects, like generating coverage of Israel beyond the negative press afforded to it by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Blumenfield said the memo and the publicity it generates “help people understand the dangers of a BDS movement that is designed to do the opposite [of what the memo seeks to do]. That’s not why we created the task force, obviously. But it is a tangible political outcome.”

Despite its political outcomes, the MOU’s chief mechanism of action has proven to be other than political.

“Most of what we do these days is innovation — innovation on water, innovation on stem cells, innovation on biotech,” Siegel said at the Beverly Hills cybersecurity
event. He added, “Innovation is job No. 1 in this relationship.”

Siegel’s formula is simple: joint innovation equals diplomacy.

Blumenfield had a similar formula for collaboration: “Israel is the startup nation and California is the scale-up nation.”

Kids at code camp get with the programming

At one local camp this summer, about 10 kids sat at computers creating their own worlds within the popular game “Minecraft.” In another room, two 11-year-old boys excitedly showed an instructor the game they created with the same platform used to develop games such as “Temple Run,” “Angry Birds” and “Hearthstone.”

There is no swimming or horseback riding at this camp. For the most part, it’s just a bunch of kids on their computers. But they’re not simply sitting around playing games; these campers learn to code by creating their own video games, websites, apps or mods in “Minecraft” (files that alter the programming code of the game to reflect the changes the user wants). 

This is CodeREV Tech Camp, the brainchild of Evan Boorman. Started less than two years ago, CodeREV Kids (short for code revolution) has seven summer camp locations — including at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and its headquarters in Santa Monica. Geared toward kids ages 6 to 15, summer courses are each one week long and cost about $550 for full-day sessions. A year-round, after-school membership program is also available, with individually designed programs that range from $189 to $285 per month.

“Learning to code helps with logic and advanced problem-solving skills with detail orientation and math,” said Boorman, 34. “We’re teaching kids to find answers for themselves. And we lead them there by asking questions: ‘How do you think you’ll do that? Why do you think that happens when you try that?’ ”

During a 14-year teaching career — whether teaching eighth-grade algebra or tutoring students to prepare for college — Boorman noticed how college graduates with coding skills were more likely to find high-paying jobs that made them happy doing work they enjoyed. His own friends were prime examples of that. So, seven years after he started teaching, he taught himself how to code. He also learned through working on projects with friends building websites. 

What he found, though, is that schools aren’t catching up fast enough with including coding and programming classes in their everyday curriculum. That led him to create CodeREV’s first camp during the winter months of 2014 with the support of some friends and family. What started as a group of about 24 kids learning how to code using “Minecraft” has grown in less than two years to an organization with more than 1,000 enrolled children this summer, approximately 100 members and partnerships with about 30 schools in the Los Angeles area. 

Seated at his desk in his office located at the Santa Monica camp with around 30 campers talking and laughing loudly in the rooms below, Boorman looked every bit the proud parent. 

Boorman himself comes from an accomplished Jewish family. His father, a doctor, is an adjunct professor at UCLA who teaches medicine, and his mother, a computer software consultant, was a math professor at the University of Michigan. His identical twin brother, Erie, is a neuroscientist and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford studying brain networks involved in the decision-making process.

But more than his parents, Boorman identifies with his maternal grandfather, an Austrian-Hungarian Jew who survived the concentration camps, came to the United States and built a new life for himself. 

“My grandfather came here with nothing, not knowing the language,” Boorman said. “He taught himself English from Westerns and working at a gas station. He worked up to supporting his family and owning a house in Brentwood. He was self-taught. I idolized him. That’s how I think I developed the entrepreneurial spirit.” 

CodeREV — which does offer kids breaks every day for fun off-computer activities — is Boorman’s second business. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, he started Tailored Tutoring, a company that helps students with college preparatory work. 

Although he himself doesn’t teach, Boorman visits each camp weekly to check in, answering questions from students and making suggestions to instructors on teaching methods, if needed. 

Anson Goode, director of the CodeREV camp located at Temple Emanuel, said he works at the camp because “the future of our engineers and programmers is here and I’m a part of that.” 

“I wish I had had a camp like this when I was growing up,” Goode, 24, said. “My first exposure to coding and programming was when I was in college. When these kids get to college, they’re gonna know so much more [than I did].”

One of those kids is Helaman Forsythe. The 13-year-old gamer is already looking forward to coming back next summer. Forsythe said he wanted to learn how video games work, and his father found the camp for him, which beats staying at home. 

“The camp is like playing video games,” Forsythe said. “But better.”

YULA grad pioneers new way to move money to Israel

Joseph Sokol is used to reactions of disbelief when he sits down with technology industry bigwigs to pitch his startup, OlehPay, a payments website that enables users to inexpensively transfer dollars to Israeli bank accounts in the form of shekels.

“So you work for them?” they ask the lanky, yarmulke-clad 20-year-old. “You’re an intern? What’s your role? Who runs it?”

Sokol simply grins at their incredulity and informs them that it is, in fact, he who runs the startup, essentially by himself.

The company was born in March out of a problem Sokol himself faced. After graduating from YULA Boys High School on West Pico Boulevard, he moved to Jerusalem to study at a yeshiva, Machon Meir. After being “packed like sardines” into a single bedroom with five other students, he said he and a roommate decided to move out, but found that he couldn’t pay his rent without withdrawing a wad of cash from an ATM at a lousy exchange rate. 

No service seemed to exist that solved the problem for him, a fact he attributes to a de facto oligopoly on banking in Israel.

Sokol thought if he was having this issue, there must be plenty of American olim — immigrants to Israel — dealing with the same thing. OlehPay ( seeks to solve that problem.

Here’s how it works: After creating an account with your email and password, you enter the amount you want to pay in shekels, followed by your billing information and the bank account number of the recipient, along with his or her name and bank branch. 

Press a button, and the order is placed: The appropriate dollar amount is drawn from your bank account or credit card and shows up in the recipient’s account in shekels. The service charges a 1.99 percent fee on credit card transactions but is free for debit cards and never charges recipients.

Sokol alleges to be able to beat the individual rate consumers get from financial institutions. The front page of the OlehPay website offers a calculator for how much users can save against the bank rate by using it.

Nowadays, Sokol bounces back and forth between Los Angeles and Jerusalem, where he works out of the office of Forex Israel, the payments company that processes OlehPay transactions. He speaks conversational Hebrew and fluent startup-ese, gracefully conjugating terms of the trade, such as “use case” and “API” (application program interface). 

The company is his foot in the door of what he says is a growth industry — online payments — pointing to a number of companies that have blossomed in that space, including PayPal and Square, a mobile device plug-in that takes credit card payments. As a sign of the ascendancy of the financial technology space, even Facebook has crafted a feature enabling users to pay one another via its messaging service.

So far, nearly $80,000 has passed through Sokol’s service from about 150 user accounts. While much of that sum comes from the types of use he imagined — large, recurring payments such as rent or mortgage — some people have begun using OlehPay to contract with Israeli professionals, like lawyers or software developers, from the United States, he said.

Sokol said that although he’s already received requests to branch out to pounds and other currencies, he won’t be expanding until he feels the service is on solid footing.

Part of the formula of his success is that by looking at the company’s slick website, one would be hard-pressed to finger OlehPay as the brainchild of a 20-year-old who went AWOL from college — after studying a year in Israel, Sokol spent a semester at UC Santa Barbara before deciding it wasn’t his scene. (“I like to think I’m autodidactic,” he explained.)

The web interface is sleek and touts a partnership with the popular Israeli online messaging board for English-speaking services,, where users can pay for work using OlehPay. 

Despite his youth, Sokol is not an amateur in the world of entrepreneurship. At 14, he started a woodworking camp in his backyard in Beverlywood, where he says he taught more than a dozen teenagers how to use a hammer. 

Then, before starting OlehPay, he and a partner he met in yeshiva sold a Hebrew learning application for $15,000, an experience he said provided him with the enthusiasm, connections and starting capital to launch his current venture.

Likewise, he sees OlehPay as a launching pad for bigger and better things. 

“This is absolutely not where I’m going to stop,” he said. “Especially since I sort of gave up my college education for this.”

Facebook facing German antitrust investigation

Germany's cartel office is investigating Facebook for suspected abuse of market power over breaches of data protection laws in the first formal probe of the social network for violating competition rules.

The watchdog said it suspected Facebook's terms of service regarding how the company makes use of users' data may abuse its possibly dominant position in the social networking market. It planned to examine whether users were properly informed about how their personal data would be obtained by the company.

Facebook, the world's biggest social network with 1.6 billion monthly users, earns revenues from advertising based on data it gathers about its users' social connections, opinions and activities in their postings.

“For advertising-financed Internet services such as Facebook, user data are hugely important,” Federal Cartel Office President Andreas Mundt said.

“For this reason it is essential to also examine under the aspect of abuse of market power whether the consumers are sufficiently informed about the type and extent of data collected.”

A Facebook spokeswoman said on Wednesday: “We are confident that we comply with the law and we look forward to working with the Federal Cartel Office to answer their questions.”

The company has faced criticism from politicians and regulators in Germany, where data protection is strictly regulated, over its privacy practices and its slow response to anti-immigrant postings by neo-Nazi sympathisers.

Co-founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg visited Berlin on a charm offensive last week.

“We welcome the approach of the Cartel office,” Hamburg Data Protection Commissioner Johannes Caspar told Reuters. “Whoever has power over user data gets market power and vice versa.”

EU officials have also expressed support for the view that Facebook's use of data might expose it to regulatory action on competition grounds.

The cartel office said it was coordinating its probe with the European Commission, competition authorities in other European Union states, data protection authorities in Germany and consumer rights groups.

French and Irish competition regulators said they were not actively involved with the German case. A spokesman for the Belgian competition authority declined to comment on whether it was cooperating with the German probe, while the British regulator was not immediately reachable.

“This is an unusual case in many respects,” said Mark Watts, head of data protection at London-based law firm Bristows.

He said it was the first time the volume of personal data a company held was such a significant factor in an investigation into whether a company has abused its dominant position.

Facebook owns four of the top eight social network services globally including its core profile service, two separate instant messaging services, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and its photo and video-sharing social network service Instagram.

Facebook has nearly the twice the number of users as the world's second largest social network, Tencent's QQ of China. Nearly 84 percent of the members of Facebook's core social network are outside the United States and Canada, which generated half its nearly $18 billion in revenues last year.

Companies can theoretically face a fine of up to 10 percent of their annual turnover by the German competition regulator if they are found to have abused a dominant market position. But the cartel office has never leveled a maximum penalty.


European regulators have begun debating the role that vast collections of “big data” – collected from billions of Web searches, messages and other online interactions – give Internet giants in marketing and commerce and how such data makes it difficult for smaller businesses to compete in those areas.

“User data is often the currency which consumers pay for supposedly free services,” said Klaus Mueller, chairman of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations. “Consumers have no adequate alternative. They can't just transfer their user data to other portals.”

The cartel office had already signaled last month it was ready to consider data protection issues as raising potential competition concerns.

European Commission spokesman Ricardo Cardoso said the EU executive shared the view of the German cartel office that the mere infringement of data protection rules by a dominant company did not automatically amount to a competition violation.

“However, it cannot be excluded that a behavior that violates data protection rules could also be relevant when investigating a possible violation of EU competition rules,” he added, while declining specific comment on the new case.

Speaking in Germany in January, top EU antitrust enforcer Margrethe Vestager said her agency was taking a harder look at whether the collection of vast amounts of consumer data by big Internet companies violates competition rules.

By contrast, U.S. privacy law enforcement remains limited to gross privacy violations where it can be show companies failed to properly safeguard customer information.

The EU has accused Facebook rival Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc, of favoring its own shopping services in search results at the expense of rivals, and is weighing possible sanctions against the world's most popular search engine.

However, the commission previously considered and rejected big data issues when it approved Google's acquisition of online advertising firm DoubleClick in 2008 and Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp in 2014.

Meet five Israeli companies driving disability tech

After a missile strike during the 1973 Yom Kippur War left Omer Zur’s father paralyzed from the chest down, his dad vowed to continue life as normal. But there was one Israeli pastime he couldn’t enjoy: hiking.

“He’d say, ‘I’ll go in the car and meet you on the other side,’” said Zur, a certified Israeli tour guide. “I said, ‘Why can’t he do this with us?’”

In 2008, Zur decided that he and his wheelchair-user father would complete a 300-mile trek in southern Turkey. With the help of dozens of friends who joined them on segments of the hike, Zur and his father were able to complete the trail, sleep in tents and cook meals over an open fire.

The hike sparked Paratrek, a startup Zur founded in 2014 that aims to make hiking accessible to people with paraplegia by outfitting wheelchairs with accessories that enable them to travel over rough terrain.

The company is one of several startups focused on improving the lives of the nearly 1 million Israelis with disabilities.

A3I, a startup accelerator housed at Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israeli advocacy organization for people with disabilities, has helped launch 22 disability projects in the past two years. Tikkun Olam Makers, a three-day competition where tech entrepreneurs design projects for people with disabilities, had three events in Israel in 2014 and 2015.

“We very much think one of the missing approaches in the world of disability is the entrepreneurial approach,” said Shira Ruderman, director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports A3I. “We wanted to work with organizations that are not disability oriented.”

Here are five Israeli companies helped by A3I that are making the world more accessible to people with disabilities.


Zur and his co-founder, Ziv Demeter, saw no reason why people in wheelchairs should not enjoy a hike. So they outfitted a chair with oversize wheels, mountain bike-style tires and a wide rod in back for easier pushing. A U-shaped harness attached to the front allows it to be pulled like a rickshaw.

Zur and Demeter also act as hiking consultants for would-be hikers. Understanding their clients’ physical limits and where they want to hike, the company can set up a trek and even join in to make sure all goes smoothly.

The pair have set up hikes across Israel, as well as in France and, later this year, in Switzerland. They’re also looking into using rescue equipment to help people with disabilities climb mountainsides.

IC Touch

A pair of glasses normally would be useless to a blind person. But Zeev Zalevsky’s glasses don’t help you see what’s in front of you — they help you feel it.

Zalevsky’s startup, IC Touch, makes glasses that take and process a picture before sending a signal to a set of tiny mirrors that are millimeters from the wearer’s eyes. The mirrors then send a set of vibrations to the cornea that make the cornea “feel” objects in the space around it.
Instead of guiding themselves with a stick or a dog, Zalevsky says, blind people can feel their surroundings with the glasses, even identifying objects up to a half-mile away.

“It’s like if you close your eyes and feel your surroundings with your fingertips, you can imagine what’s in front of you,” said Zalevsky, an engineering professor at Bar-Ilan University. “Instead of reaching out in front of you, the picture comes to your head.”


The screen looks a little like the classic 1980s arcade game Frogger, in which an amphibian tries to cross a busy street. In this version, a red car has to maneuver through blue cars to reach an open lane — but instead of using buttons and a joystick, players move the car by raising a pole from one notch to the next. Sensors in each notch capture the motion and project the car’s progress on an iPad.

The game, the initial offering from the startup Gemon, helps strengthen the upper back of people with disabilities or those recovering from an injury. The company aims to “game-ify” rehabilitation to relieve the tedium of staring at an exercise machine all day. Co-founders Tomer Yannay and Ohad Doron are also creating a sensor that can be attached to any workout machine to transform the exercise into a game. Eventually, Yannay says, the games could even appear in health clubs.

Easy Stroll

Adira was eight months pregnant and about to become a single mother, but she had a problem: She couldn’t take her baby for a walk.

Adira is in a wheelchair and can’t push a stroller. So she contacted Dana Yichye-Shwachman, a designer with Jonathan Bar-Or Industrial Design. Yichye-Shwachman responded with Easy Stroll, an aluminum attachment to the wheelchair’s footboard that latches on to a stroller.

Yichye-Shwachman posted a video of the product online and received 30 emails for new orders. She is now creating a prototype that will fit a variety of wheelchairs and strollers.

Siman Shenagish

Few children have to accompany their parents to the bank and explain to them that their account is in overdraft. But for Tal Bousidan, days like that were routine.

Bousidan was born to two deaf parents. With sign-language interpreters in short supply in Israel, he would fill the role for his parents, explaining to them what bank tellers and shop clerks were unable to communicate on their own.

Now a professional sign-language interpreter, Bousidan has created a startup that provides instantaneous Hebrew sign-language translation via tablet computers.

The startup, Siman Shenagish — Hebrew for “accessible sign” — has a pilot running at a health clinic in the southern city of Ashkelon. Deaf patients tap on the iPad, and a full-time translator appears on the screen ready to translate for the doctor. The startup has plans to expand to Tel Aviv, and Bousidan hopes to provide translation in other languages in the future.

This article is part of a series tied to Jewish Disability & Inclusion Awareness Month that is part of our partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation. Guided by Jewish values, the foundation advocates for and advances the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community. To learn more, visit the foundation’s website.

Apple’s Siri technology to be offered in Hebrew

Apple’s voice-activated assistant technology, which is offered in 18 languages, will be offered in Hebrew.

Siri, which stands for Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface, will be able to speak Hebrew next month in the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, Ynet reported Tuesday.

The beta version of the Hebrew Siri will not allow for searching of restaurants, movie theaters and other local destinations, the Times of Israel reported.

Siri is only currently available in various dialects of English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, Turkish, Thai and Portuguese.

The technology, which responds to a variety of vocal requests, is available only on Apple devices.

Israel’s high tech aims to help the elderly

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

More and more elderly people worldwide are joining the technology revolution, and technology is coming to meet them halfway. In Israel, one of the world’s high-tech capitals, companies are racing to develop new applications and products for the senior citizens set.

“The population is getting older and this creates a lot of challenges as people are living alone and not being involved in society as much as younger people,” Eran Gal, CEO of Xorcom a company developing a home monitoring solution, told The Media Line. Called Amity, the software is capable of monitoring both location and behavior patterns to ensure that an older person has not fallen or wandered away from their home in cases of dementia. The idea is to give elderly more independence while keeping them safe.

A second startup, E2C has developed a simplified operating system that works with off-the-shelf hardware to create a smartphone that is more user friendly for older customers. The program responds to longer presses on the touch screen (to prevent accidental calls), always uses a full screen keyboard, and collects pictures and messages from different programs into one easy-to-find location. The program is aimed at reconnecting elderly people to friends and family and allowing a smartphone to be an aid rather than an obstacle. Currently, only around 20% of seniors in the US are using smartphones, E2C’s co-founder Amir Alon, told The Media Line, and he hopes his application could increase that number.

“We are taking the latest technologies and making it relevant for the senior citizens, and we can change the life of the senior,” Alon said. “Our flagship product is our smartphone for seniors. We take off the shelf hardware, and we make our own kind of Android for seniors.”

It makes good business sense, as well as ethical social responsibility, to cater to the elderly, Nir Shimony, the CEO and co-founder of TechForGood, a group which aims to promote social works through innovative technological solutions, told The Media Line. “We want to harness the Israeli out-of-the-box way of tackling business issues into tackling social issues,” Shimony explained. The size and growth of the elderly population in the developed world makes them an attractive consumer group to companies, as does their relative wealth.

Other Israeli startups moving into the field of elderly care include: Video Therapy, a solution aimed at improving the efficiency of therapy for older citizens by allowing them to interact with their trainer via video-call; and Atlas Sense, unobtrusive, wearable technology that can read and transmit a subject’s vital signs to monitor their health, and even detect if a person falls.

Many of the new companies’ technologies raised questions regarding the ethics of monitoring an individual or of the continuous integration of a person’s body with digital technology. This was something acknowledged by several of the entrepreneurs who noted that new technologies can have an impact on society at large.

This was especially true of Moran Zur, the CEO of Safe Beyond, a startup which enables a user to leave video messages for their loved ones after their death.

“We try actually to change the perception of death… we believe that the fact you stop existing in the real world does not mean that you will not continue existing in the digital world,” Zur told The Media Line.

Safe Beyond’s video messages can be triggered by a date, an individual going to a certain location or even by a key event like a grown child’s wedding. Facebook turns a user’s page into a memorial site after their death so this sort of program is not without precedent, the CEO suggested. Rather the application gives control of this digital legacy to the user who can decide what to leave behind and who to leave it for, Zur said.

Google in Tel Aviv recently hosted all of these companies as part of Aging 2.0, high-tech pitch events for 30 cities in 30 days. At the end of the day in Tel Aviv, the audience voted for their favorites, and E2C’s smartphone received the most votes. CEO Amir Alon will go on to the next level of the competition in San Francisco later this year.

Brand-new labs, advanced equipment prep students for sci-tech careers

While Jewish day schools across Los Angeles have always tried to keep children and teens rooted in their ancient faith, new programs are now helping students develop the skills and creativity needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Over the past decade, secular and religious schools have adopted STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (which factors in arts) curriculums, integrating these previously disparate disciplines. These initiatives — customizable for grades K-12 — are based on the premise that the future success of today’s students depends on not only what they know, but also on how they use what they know. 

Yet this type of learning requires new classroom approaches — such as hands-on, project-based learning — as well as specialized facilities and equipment, such as advanced computers and 3-D printers. To meet these needs, many schools are creating “innovation labs” on their campuses.

YULA students working on a robotics project in the new YULA Genesis Innovation Lab. Photo by John Solano

Allison Sostchen, director of general studies at Gindi Maimonides Academy, said the school’s addition of an innovation lab has “been a complete game-changer, as it adds so much value and opportunity to our activities. For example … use of a 3-D printer to demonstrate principles of design, circuitry and basic programming; and use of digital storyboarding and ‘mindmaps’ as methods for integrating writing, research, and visualization of abstract concepts.”

Jewish values, such as compassion, are often integral to projects. At YULA Boys High School in West Los Angeles, students used a 3-D printer to create a prosthetic hand. And at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, middle-schoolers created and patented a Word Ring, a scanning device for sight-impaired people that converts text to audio. 

“Sure, there was science and math going on before [STEM and our innovation lab] came to our school,” said Larry Kligman, head of school at Heschel. “Yet when we embarked on this, we realized this was beyond ‘new.’ This inspiration came from the fact that we don’t know what jobs our kids will apply for 20 years from now. What we do know is that there will be a new set of skills they are going to need to be able to secure those jobs and thrive in them.”

At Milken Community Schools’ Saperstein Middle School, the STEAM department offers elective, extracurricular and co-curricular courses in design, robotics, programming and more. Milken’s high school has had four semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search; 16 students with patents or provisional patents on their Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge products; and 18 Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) students whose research at Milken has been published in scientific journals. 

Miss America 2015, Kira Kazantsev, center, visits Milken Community Schools’ MAST classroom. Photo by Roger Kassebaum

Although there is great excitement about the prospect of pushing education into the 21st century, change does not come cheap. The process of procuring investors, grants, donations and other forms of financial support has been a learning experience for leadership at the schools.

“STEM requires both instructional support, financial support and time,” said Tami Weiser, head of school at Wise School, which goes from kindergarten through sixth grade. “I have a group of teachers and administrators who meet twice a week just for that integrating step. We discuss initiatives, planning STEM events, and making sure things get carried out in the different spaces.”

It cost $300,000 to develop Wise’s new innovation lab, which was made possible by a donation from the Tyberg family and is used by all the academic disciplines. The Moradi family donated $50,000 that went toward remodeling the science lab, and this academic year, the school also added a project studio, which integrates STEM with social studies and further bolsters the science program’s engineering component. 

At YULA, parents and lay leaders Sherri and Arnold Schlesinger approached the school about unifying existing STEM efforts into the Genesis Academy for Innovation, said Richard St. Laurent, general studies principal. Genesis provides STEM education for students at all levels, including those at YULA Girls High School, St. Laurent said. The centerpiece of Genesis is the innovation lab, a hub for a variety of programs.

YULA students working on engineering projects. Photo by John Solano  

YULA teacher Ian Arenas oversees Genesis, which opened in its current form this academic year, and he described some of the ways lab activities are enriching students’ education. 

“For example, a 3-D printer can be used to re-create Hellenistic architecture to document and preserve information. … Genesis Academy partners with corporations and organizations such as [after-school program] LA’s Best, the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) schools and the national Veterans Affairs office through a teaching and mentorship program, using the mobile science/innovation lab,” he said.

At Wise School, science teachers Alexandra Coatney and Mandy Bolkin are excited about how their initiatives came to life this year.

“Students are taking what they learn home with them,” Bolkin said. “They are loving our in-class projects and are taking advantage of opportunities to get more involved with their community, such as participating in Coastal Cleanup Day.” 

Seeing kids and teens in these labs, engaged in creation and invention, provides a palpable sense of how these investments are already paying off.

At Heschel, the newly remodeled Robotics Club space was packed with kids brushing up on their programming skills or preparing their entries for the upcoming First Lego League competition, where thousands of teams from around the world will be tasked with building robots that perform a particular job. This year’s competition focuses on trash and recycling. 

YULA students Eitan Tennenbaum, 17, and Benjamin Goldstein, 15, talked about the impact that their STEM education has had on them.

“The school already has computers we use every single day, [but] having a lab where you can express yourself with [things such as] 3-D printers and the Oculus Rift [a virtual reality device] really enhances the experience,” Eitan said.

“Learning how to use technology now … can help you when you’re finished with school to get a job,” Benjamin said. “It also teaches creativity and how to use your brain, and in the end, will help you succeed in anything. 

“[I’ve learned] that you can build anything with anything, and that your mind opens up when you walk into this room.” 

Technology offers solutions to tomorrow’s agriculture problems

This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

Ten billion people. That is the number of mouths that farmers will have to feed in another two decades. In order to do this food production needs to increase by 70%.

“In recent years, due to the over usage of soils there are more problems with insects and diseases. At the same time, there is increased regulation on the usage of chemicals,” Yuval Fradkin, the head of Futura Graft told The Media Line. “(Modern) requirements lead to a point where you ask the plant to be some kind of super plant. On the one hand you ask it to provide the needs of the farmer and the market. At the same time you ask the plant to fight all the other problems in order to grow.”

Futura Graft were one of twelve companies speaking at a recent conference called Agrivest, offering new technologies for agriculture. Futura Graft’s solution to the twin conundrums of increased food production and simultaneous reduction of the usage of harmful pesticides, is the application of robotics to an existing technique known as grafting. Grafting involves taking the roots from one plant and fusing them with the green stalk, or scion, of another, giving the plant the properties of both.

“This is not something that we invented. The Chinese used to do it thousands of years ago,” Fradkin points out. What Futura Graft are offering which is new is a reduction in the time spent grafting the rootstock to the scion, a process which is time consuming and requires numerous workers. “We are just taking (grafting) and making it more advanced, with the ability to deal with more problems than they used to do in traditional grafting.”

This will benefit “the population of the world, food production in general,” says Fradkin. If humanity is going to feed an additional 2.3 billion people by the half way point of this century, then new solutions are likely to be necessary.

But increasing the amount of food that mankind could produce was not the only salvation on offer at AgriVest 2015. “Imagine sugar which is twice as sweet as sugar – that is what Doux Matok offers,” said Eran Baniel, in a slight French accent, as he addressed the audience during the conference. Seeking to help curb the rise of diabetes and obesity, two health problems which health professionals have warned are looming health crises in the West, the startup offered to reduce the amount of sugar consumers ate by “cheating their taste receptors” into believing a food was twice as sweet as it actually was

Doux Matok’s solution was based in chemistry. Futura Graft’s in plant cultivation and robotics. Among other startups at the conference were solutions based in data analysis, water filtration, remote sensors, biological cultivation and new techniques for food packaging. Each of the companies was hoping to gain exposure through the conference and attract new investors. Although solutions to the problems of the future were much in discussion, equally important at the conference was money and business potential.

As Baniel said, if you “make wonderful things which are (too) expensive, you’ll get compliments but no business.” Keen to attract money which could be channeled into additional research and development or the patenting of additional lucrative intellectual property rights, Baniel added, “We all talk billions, but in the food and beverage industry it is billions.”

The importance of placing business at the forefront of agri-tech development was acknowledged by Oded Distil, Director of Israel New Tech and Invest in Israel, a branch of the Ministry of Economy.

“At the end of the day it has to be based on pure business rational, otherwise it doesn’t work,” Oded told The Media Line. But he was keen to stress the variables which were behind that rational: the need to grow more food; the requirement to use resources – “land, water, whatever” – more efficiently; and the necessity to reduce the amount of damaging chemicals and pesticides being applied in agriculture.

“The concept and mindset is an extremely important factor that has to go all the way from the consumer to the supplier to the multinational and all the way down to the farmer – everyone has to get the new vision of how things have to be done.”

Although the conference had an international flavor the strength of Israeli ventures amongst the startups, was apparent. “A lot of it comes from our DNA – (in the past) we had to come up with solutions to certain problems… So you would find that throughout the years always we had innovation in this sector,” Oded said. Israel’s tradition of agriculture in a tough environment and the success of its high-tech industry give it an advantage in the growing agri-tech industry. “You’ve got a lot of international interest in this conference because Israel is in this game and… has been for many years.”

“This comes down to the ever recurring question of the startup nation,” believes Oskar Laufer, from Phenome Networks, a data analysis firm which specializes in precision agriculture.

“There are a few well known factors which contributed to this: the availability of adventure capital; the large influx of (educated) Russian immigrants in the 90s; (the) culture of entrepreneurial spirit; the army – there is a lot of people who are developing technology in the army… a whole generation of people developing technology.” This, he explains, blends well with the founding Zionists’ focus on agriculture. “Israel started with very tough agricultural circumstances – not a lot of water, a lot of desert, swamps here a hundred years ago – so the people who lived here were forced to be very inventive.”

Apple Watch launches April 24 for up to $17,000 in rose gold

Apple Inc launched its long-awaited watch on Monday, including yellow or rose gold models with sapphire faces costing up to $17,000, but investors questioned whether Chief Executive Tim Cook's first product would be a breakaway hit.

Apple's first new device since Cook became CEO will be available for order on April 10 and in stores on April 24, including chic boutiques in Paris, London and Tokyo.

In a nod to both fashion and technology, Cook shared the stage with model Christy Turlington Burns, who used it to train for a marathon, and Apple engineers who showed off apps, including how to call an Uber car with the watch.

Apple shares barely budged, however. Investors and analysts agreed that Apple would sell millions to fans but questioned whether it had a “killer app” that would engage a broader audience. Apple in September gave a sneak peek of the watch which included many features shown on Monday.

“I think there's a niche market for these kind of Apple tech people who love Apple and will buy anything they come out with. But I just don't know if it's going to be the power product that everyone's looking for,” said Daniel Morgan, senior portfolio manager at Synovus Trust Company in Atlanta, Georgia, who described Wall Street as “scratching its head”.

Members of the style establishment, in Paris for shows from the glittering likes of Chanel, Givenchy and Hermes mostly said they saw the watch as a gadget, not this season's must-have accessory.

The Apple Watch sport will start at $349 for the smaller, 38-mm model. The standard version of the watch will start at $549 and the high-end “Edition” watch will be priced from $10,000, said Cook, who loved the Dick Tracy ability to hold phone calls by watch.

“I have been wanting to do this since I was five years old,” said Cook.

The different models reflect different materials. A $17,000 Edition in the smaller, 38-mm size, has a case made from a customized version of 18-karat rose gold, which is especially hard, along with a sapphire display. It comes with a magnetic charging case.

A $349 Sport model the same size has an aluminum case, a 'sport band' and a magnetic charging cable, and no case.

All the watches share digital faces that can look like traditional time pieces, show the heart beat of a friend, and display photos and interfaces for apps.

“Apple's been very good at personalizing its products,” said Angelo Zino, an analyst at S&P Capital IQ, who said the “intimacy” of the watch was appealing. He saw 10 million in sales this year.

In the presentation, Cook described the watch handling many functions currently associated with the iPhone, which tethers wirelessly to the watch and connects it to the Internet.

The watch will track exercise and remind wearers of events with a tap on the wrist.

Cook also laid out other product successes and launched a new MacBook notebook computer that starts at $1,299 and weighs as little as 2 pounds.

Every major car brand had committed to delivering Apple's CarPlay entertainment system, and the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have 99 percent customer satisfaction rates, he said. The Apple Pay payment system is now accepted at 700,000 locations, and Time Warner Inc's HBO in April will debut its streaming HBO NOW service on Apple TV.

Apple also is offering researchers new development tools, called ResearchKit, to help medical researchers design apps for clinical trials, the company said.

Stephen Hawking’s worst nightmare? Golem 2.0

Stephen Hawking is much in the news these days. His personal story, the subject of the recently released film “The Theory of Everything,” is already spoken of as an Oscar contender. Diagnosed in 1963 with the dreaded Lou Gehrig’s disease and given two years to live, he went on to a brilliant career, became the author of international best-sellers, received dozens of honorary degrees and gained broad recognition as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein.

Hawking is clearly someone undaunted by personal fears. Yet in a recent BBC interview, Hawking confided that he was deeply concerned for the future of humanity. The cause of his concern is artificial intelligence, or AI, the creation of intelligent machines able to “outthink” their creators. What began with IBM’s Watson supercomputer, capable of handily beating chess grandmasters and the best players on “Jeopardy!,” may in the near future, Hawking warned, checkmate its designers to become the Earth’s ruler.

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking said.

Science fiction already has prepared us to contemplate such a scenario. Films like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix” pit puny humans against AI-driven enemies. The upcoming “Avengers” movie depicts superheroes forced to battle Ultron, an AI machine determined to destroy mankind.

There’s a world of difference between the ability to create and the power to control. As Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has put it, “It may be hard to write an algorithmic moral code strong enough to constrain and contain super-smart software.” The greatest danger of scientific progress is the possibility that what we bring into being realizes a life of its own and is no longer subservient to its maker nor human values.

That is what has been the subliminal message for centuries of the famous legend of the golem of Prague. In Jewish tradition, Judah Loew, the 16th century rabbi of Prague, used his knowledge of Jewish mysticism to magically animate a lifeless lump of clay and turn it into a super human defender of the Jewish people. On its forehead he wrote the Hebrew word for truth, “emet,” which mystically gave the creature its power.

Much to his consternation however, Loew soon realized that once granted its formidable strength, the golem became impossible to fully control. Versions of the story differ. In one the golem fell in love and, when rejected, turned into a murderous monster. In another the golem went into an unexplained murderous rampage. In perhaps the most fascinating account, Loew himself was at fault — something akin to a computer programmer’s error — by forgetting to deactivate the golem immediately prior to the Sabbath, as was his regular custom. This caused the golem to profane the holiness of the day and be guilty of the death penalty.

Whatever the cause, Loew came to conclude that the golem had to be put to rest. The rabbi erased the first letter of emet — the aleph with a numerical value of one, representing the one God above who alone can give life. That left only the two letters spelling the Hebrew word for death, “met.” No longer representing the will of the ultimate creator, nor bearing the mark of God on his forehead, the golem turned into dust.

Many scholars believe that it was the legend of the golem that inspired Mary Shelley to write her famous Frankenstein novel about an unorthodox scientific experiment that creates life, only to reap the horrifying results when the achievement goes terribly wrong.

Creation without control is a formula for catastrophe. The history of scientific achievement bears ample testimony to the simple truth that progress detached from the restraints of moral and ethical considerations may grant us the knowledge to penetrate the secrets of nuclear fission, but at the cost of placing mankind in danger of universal annihilation.

The story of the golem of Prague is a paradigm for the hazard of permitting what we create to go far beyond our intent. Artificial intelligence, as an extension of our intellectual ability, certainly has many advantages. Yet it cannot really “think.” It has no moral sensitivity. It does not share the ethical limitations of its programmer. And it is not restricted by the values of those who brought it into being.

Stephen Hawking has done us a much-needed favor by alerting us to the very real dangers of AI. But what I find striking — and highly serendipitous — is the other major revelation just recently ascribed to him: Hawking publicly admitted that he is in fact an atheist. In response to a journalist questioning him about his religious leanings, he said unequivocally, “There is no God.”

Perhaps the biblical God in whom I and so much of the world believe must also deeply regret the “artificial intelligence” with which he imbued mankind. Perhaps we are the greatest illustration of the fear we now verbalize for our technology — creations capable of destroying our world because we doubt our creator.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University.


No magic bullet: Technology has much to offer in the classroom, but it can’t fix everything

I’m sold on technology in the classroom. I really am. I mean, books, paper and pens are a form of technology — they’re just a comparatively inert and messy form. 

I’m not sentimental about physical books. I’m sure when they came around, some poor slob was sitting in a corner crying because reading would never be the same without handwritten scrolls, and a few centuries before that, when the scrolls came around, some sad shmo was tearing his hair out and wailing that you’d have to pry his stone tablets out of his cold, dead hands.

But I’m not ready to hand the keys over to Apple yet. The fact that new technology is available does not mean we know how to use it. The really cool thing about most of these netbooks, laptops, tablets and e-readers is that they are adaptive to our needs, and if the software is smart, it’s adaptive, too.

Technology is not static. High-tech tools are not shovels; they aren’t created for a single purpose and used that way forever. In fact, it’s my impression that iPads were created because they were cool and Apple figured, correctly, that users would figure out what they were good for through trial and error. Google is now doing the same with Google Glass. God help us all.

But currently we are not talking about technology in schools this way. What I see instead is an approach to technology as if it were a solid, unchanging, one-size-fits-all answer. In my opinion, this way of thinking is a mistake — a very, very expensive mistake. This mistake has two aspects:

1. Top-down, large-scale, prepackaged “solutions” 

Right now, superintendents and schools, terrified of seeming out of date, are investing enormous amounts of money in prepackaged technology without regard to its usefulness in the context of the very different classrooms in which it will be used. The most glaring example is the recent fiasco in which Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy pushed for $1.3 billion to purchase iPads for every single student in the district — with such blind enthusiasm that the original plan was to offer above retail for each and every tablet. Are your ancestors spinning in their graves? Mine are. 

The district also failed to ask whether any teacher actually wanted to use these tablets; as of this year, 80 percent of the high schools that received the iPads reported that they rarely use them. As for the expensive Pearson software “curriculum” purchased for the devices, sight unseen, less than half of 1 percent of all teachers surveyed had ever used it. 

2. The delusion that technology and “blended learning” will allow us to cut back on teachers, saving us money 

This is a fantasy I hear promoted by many blended-learning advocates whose dream, at least as I’ve heard it, was that in the future, classrooms would have 60 or more kids. Here’s how the dream goes:

Each class, divided into three groups of 20 pupils, will have a “master teacher” in charge of 60 kids per class period. One group will be led by the teacher and be focused on discussion or direct instruction. Another group will be divided into small groups who work together on a project. A third group will work independently on computers to do individualized lessons guided by software to meet their needs.

A third of the way through the class, everyone will rotate to a new station. By the end of the class, each of the pupils will have been in a class discussion, participated in a group and done an individualized lesson.

Final result: We save a ton of money. 

The teacher is then carried away on a stretcher.

Actually, that last sentence is purely hypothetical. It’s also the only part I actually believe. Seriously, can you imagine actually teaching a class like this? I mean, for more than an hour? Without being on a Xanax drip?

Let’s get real. Blended learning is a cool idea, but it is not going to allow us to fire half the workforce as if on an assembly line when you upgrade your machinery.

So what can blended learning do? I have now seen blended learning in action at a few sites, and I’m here to tell you that — done thoughtfully, in an organic way that proceeds from a teacher’s needs and with a class size small enough for the teacher to have an individual relationship with students — it looks promising. 

But when class sizes balloon to more than 30, things get much, much dicier. I recently witnessed a really excellent teacher leading a blended-learning English class with 37 students. With this number of pupils, due to funding cuts, the small-group work aspect was not possible because kids just wouldn’t focus without a teacher’s supervision. 

But the biggest issue is sustainability. The teacher I observed was essentially teaching two simultaneous classes; she had to plan the discussion and personally design work for the students doing the individualized lessons, because as far as I know there is no really good software for 11th-grade English — how could there be once you got past basic grammar and vocabulary? The kids not sitting in front of her were filling out worksheets or chatting. Every so often, she’d stop her lesson to redirect them, at which point the other group would drift off task. Just watching her gave me a headache.

Like so many educational innovations I read about, large classrooms and rotating workstations might work in a class of high-functioning, confident students, but in an underserved community where you have a lot of kids coming in far below grade level, with low confidence and a history of negative experiences with school, many students need more individual attention than this. 

And yet, ironically, I only hear people talking about saving money by using technology to allow enormous classes when they’re talking about students of color in high-poverty communities. I never hear people talk this way about saving money on affluent white students. So before we implement the technology “solution,” let’s be honest about which students are being treated as objects on an assembly line and which are being seen as human beings in our educational system.

Technology is a great tool. We are going to be able to do a lot of cool stuff we’ve never dreamed of. But as a society, let’s let go of the delusion that technology is going to replace teachers or allow enormous class sizes.

It’s going to take time. And patience. And that most outrageous of luxuries, human conversation. 

I know, I know, we can’t afford human conversation. We need to spend a billion dollars to gear up for the billion dollars’ worth of standardized testing coming at us.

That, we can afford. How else will we be sure our children are learning?

Ellie Herman is an award-winning writer, teacher and life coach in Los Angeles. She blogs about education, learning and life at

Israeli company ReWalk going public

The Israeli company ReWalk Robotics, which builds exoskeletons to help people with spinal cord injuries stand and walk, is going public.

The company, which changed its name recently from Argo Medical Technologies to the name of its signature product, announced this week that it will be listed on the NASDAQ exchange next month.

The company recently received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the ReWalk device, a 44-pound exoskeleton that allows individuals with spinal cord injuries to walk, stand and sit with minimal exertion. ReWalk is already in use in Europe and was featured in 2010 on the popular television drama “Glee” while ReWalk was undergoing clinical trials in the United States.

Released in September 2012, ReWalk is the brainchild of Amit Goffer, an Israeli computer scientist and inventor who became paralyzed after a 1997 car accident. Although he cannot use the ReWalk himself because he lacks the use of his arms, he began designing the device with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Israeli government because, he said, he was frustrated at the lack of alternatives to a wheelchair.

The device functions through motors attached to the legs that can propel a disabled person at a slow walking speed. A tilt sensor, the same technology used on Segway electric transporters, can sense whether the user wants to move forward or back, and stand or sit. Poles are used for added support.


‘HoneyBook’ takes a leap forward in event planning technology

Naama Alon planned her wedding during a stressful academic year at Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. Soon after the nuptials, but before finishing her degree in graphic design and interactive media, she and her new husband, Oz, birthed a startup that would soon make waves in the United States.

Their interactive website, HoneyBook (, whose name is derived from “honeymoon” and “booking,” is a technological hub for professional event planners and the contractors they hire — where brides- and grooms-to-be (or other customers coordinating a multipronged operation) can comfortably manage all facets of their event from any web-enabled device.

The idea arose from a school project that Alon was assigned, involving the production of a radio show. She used her recent wedding as the theme of the broadcast, airing some of the audio portion of the event, such as speeches made in honor of the couple.

This, among other things, caused her to recognize her limited ability to aggregate all the material from the wedding — pictures, video footage, music and mementos — and make it accessible not only to herself, but to the guests who had attended as well.

“Facebook just wasn’t a sufficient venue for all that,” she said. The website has offices in Tel Aviv and Silicon Valley.

Her husband, who took an active role in the wedding plans based on eight years of experience planning events for 1,000-plus people at his production company, said they were “struck by the huge gap in the market between existing technology and the kind of product we would have benefited from.”

He explained, “All event planners, photographers, florists, DJs, caterers and everybody else connected to a wedding — including the bride and groom — have smartphones. So the coordination process shouldn’t be so complicated and clumsy.”

And yet, he said, “We found ourselves collecting and signing countless contracts, managing emails and phone calls from upward of 15 vendors, and worst of all, writing paper checks. … More than two decades after the birth of the modern Internet and at a time where all of our vendors already owned a smartphone, we were still dealing with hard copies, checks and the dreaded Excel spreadsheet.”

HoneyBook was the couple’s way to get the wedding business up to speed technologically, from the “before” to the “after.” The tools on the site provide a graphically aesthetic cyberhome for memorabilia, coupled with a cyber-
office for booking and contracting with vendors. 

So far, HoneyBook is restricted to event planners in the United States, where the market is ripe for this product. The plan is to go global in the future.

Setting up shop in the United States wasn’t even part of the original plan. “It hurt us to make the move,” she said. “On the one hand, we love Israel desperately. On the other, we knew that our $100 billion target market was not in Israel.”

HoneyBook’s investors — the accelerator UpWest Labs (a U.S.-based program exclusively serving Israeli entrepreneurs) and venture capitalist/angel Bobby Lent — encouraged and enabled the team to build the business in America first, with the goal of expanding it to the rest of the globe.

The event-planning industry in the U.S. is massive, and HoneyBook sought to fill an immediate and widespread need. Many Israelis are beginning to adopt American event habits, so the founders hope that by the time HoneyBook is fully established and profitable, it will slide right into the Israeli market.

“In order to create a site that suits the needs of the U.S. event-planning market, we had to be on the ground in the U.S., living and learning and meeting with people, to find out how best to accommodate them,” she said. “What excites me the most is the endless business opportunity and the acquired knowledge from some of the world’s most talented entrepreneurs and product innovators.”

She also emphasized the importance of having the technological research and development operation remain in Tel Aviv.

“Israeli (research and development) is the best in the world,” said Dror Shimoni, co-founder and chief technology officer of HoneyBook, who heads the development team in Israel. “And our technology is unmatched.”

Her ultimate goal is “to take that amazing technology and create a high-quality product for professionals and a user-friendly one for regular people to maneuver.”

So, while the current focus of HoneyBook is event planning, its technology eventually could be employed for any endeavor, such as home renovations, that requires coordination among many different sub-contractors.

This was an innovation that Alon did not have at her fingertips when papers and final exams made planning her own wedding a stressful experience. Her next anniversary bash, however — even alongside the couple’s grueling business schedule — ought to be a piece of cybercake.

Am I an e-slave?: The pressure of human interaction

I am not the right person to preach on electronic servitude, given my tons of incoming mail and messages and a touch of OCD. As I’m writing this, in between tweets and Facebook updates, I have stopped to answer e-mails. More than once. They pile up, you see, and I like a clean inbox even more than a clean desk. 

The essence of slavery is to be unable to make a choice, and so we use the word loosely when we say that we are “slaves” to our appetites or drives. But the expanse of our will is narrowed by powerful pushes in a given direction. People are not quite slaves to alcohol because they can quit, but it is much closer to slavery when you’re an alcoholic than it is when you have no impulse to overindulge. Addiction is not full-on slavery, but it can feel uncomfortably close.

I sit in meetings and, knowing it is not entirely graceful, sneak peeks at my e-mail and texts. Discreetly, I tap responses. All the while I succumb to the great Internet illusion that what exists on the screen is more compelling than what exists in the world. Yes, someone is talking, but that little red circle is showing on my iPhone, with all its faux urgency, pleading with me to check. (Hold for one second, if you will — I have a text …)

Where was I? Oh yes, texts. They ding, or ring, or honk, you see, or click, or thunk, and one can only imagine the urgency of the communication. Here is where the insidiousness creeps in: I know from experience that almost all e-mails and texts can wait. “Did you see GOT last night? OMG!!!!” is not a piercing observation requiring instant response. But add a ding to that message, and I’m full-on Pavlovian. “Dopamine” rightly begins with “dope.”

I recently completed a book, a biography of King David. While writing, I had to turn off my phone. So long as it was making insistent noises (or in silent mode making those disturbing “I might be making noises, but you don’t even know” noises) I could not possibly summon the sustained concentration necessary to write a book. 

In the olden days, that is, a decade ago, when you were having lunch with someone, it was unlikely that everyone you knew would walk into the restaurant to talk to you. But now, everyone you know is in your pocket. They are with you at all times. Your entire social circle, (along with a huge chunk of the totality of human knowledge) is waiting for a “hi” or “lol.” The pressure of human contact is unrelenting, and the result is avdut (slavery) of the Internet = e-slavery.

Shabbat is a break, but use of electronic devices is common among even the observant. I am blessedly free at shul, but I come home and find myself thinking that my phone might be trying to reach me to tell me of some crisis, or catastrophe, or family communication from the East Coast. The possibilities are endless of what that black, blank screen might be hiding, available at the seductive push of a button. The justifications fly thick and fast, all in service of impulse. 

Passover teaches the only genuine escape from slavery. It is not an act of will alone, but a change of place and circumstance. To hold your phone in your pocket and resist looking at it is a good start. Leaving your phone at home is even better. Liberation often means being able to renounce, and, by renouncing, to unshackle oneself. “No” is the word that gives you freedom. The Torah depicts the Israelites yearning for Egypt, but they could not turn back. You may sit at lunch, or in a meeting, and imagine the delights your phone would bring, but if you don’t carry it along with you, there is a momentary liberation.

Let us, therefore, declare phone-free sedarim. Observant or not, the people at the table should be the people you are there with, alongside our ancestors, who escaped slavery to liberate us to the very different slavery of abundance.  

We have too much — information, access, food, entertainment — everything. Don’t let Elijah catch you on your iPhone. He might not come back.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at

Passover: Touching Liberation

As we were developing the cover story for this year’s Passover issue —“Are we e-slaves?”— I couldn’t help thinking about a little girl in Israel, Amit, who suffers from a neurodevelopmental disorder called Rett syndrome.

According to academic literature, Rett syndrome is characterized by “normal early growth and development followed by a slowing of development, loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures and intellectual disability.”

I learned about Amit a few months ago when I spoke at a dinner for Beit Issie Shapiro, the innovative center in Israel that has been caring for Amit and other children with disabilities.

That evening kept popping into my mind as I reflected on the notion of e-slavery. Because slavery is key to the Passover story, it was only natural for us to explore the idea of our modern-day enslavement to technology. 

Has this technology become so incredible that it is starting to own us? Has the power to access virtually any information instantly at any time, or the power to connect instantly with anyone at any time, taken over our lives and made us slaves to science?

For so many of us who have smartphones grafted to our hands, these are legitimate questions. But the evening I spent with Beit Issie Shapiro gave me a whole different take on this subject.

I saw the power of technology not to enslave us but to liberate us.

Specifically, I saw how a wondrous digital machine like the iPad can transform the lives of children with severe disabilities. 

Amit, for example, comes alive as she touches the screen of a specially designed iPad, which allows her to play games, discover music, create art and, most important, communicate. 

Her mother also comes alive. “She has this horrible syndrome, and I didn’t think I would be so much happy and pleased,” the mother says on a video, as we watch her play an art game with Amit on the iPad. “She actually moves her hands better … we just enjoy the light in her eyes when she sees it [the iPad] and she uses it.”

For someone like Amit, whose life has been improved immeasurably by this technology, the idea of being an “e-slave” must seem ridiculous. I can just imagine her seeing our Passover cover and thinking: “What are these people talking about? Technology saved my life!”

There’s some irony in the fact that the very latest in digital progress, the iPad, has returned to that most basic human function — physical touch. For many kids with disabilities, simply touching something is the one thing they’re most comfortable doing.

They don’t have the luxury to indulge in figurative language. Their slavery is real. It’s physical. It’s more like the slavery of our ancestors. They can touch it.

People without disabilities can afford to think about slavery metaphorically, but this also can be a limitation. It’s easy to overthink things. Thinking, itself, keeps us in the theoretical realm. Even when we discuss and debate ideas, they remain in the head. We don’t really touch them.

Children like Amit specialize in touching.

They see a screen with beautiful images, and they touch it. They see a mother or a father’s hand, they see a toy or a flower or a dog or a paintbrush, and they touch it.

They don’t wallow in thinking; they wallow in touching. Touching liberates them. 

But what about us, with fully functioning brains: Are we thinking too much and not touching enough?

While our brains are overflowing with so much noise and static, do we lose something primal and fundamental, like the ability to touch something real?

It’s clear that a side effect of abusing super-fast technology is that it clutters and speeds up our minds, adding even more mental stress to our lives. 

Maybe that’s why Jewish rituals like Passover seders are so helpful. They force us to slow down. They make us think, yes, but they also make us touch. We don’t just tell our story, we touch it. We touch the salt, the matzah, the bitter herbs, the charoset — all the symbols that give our story meaning. 

And we tell a story of liberation that touches our lives.

It is this duality of thinking and touching that helps us feel, and helps us reconnect with the things that matter most, the things technology can never do for us: Nurturing friendships, caring for a lonely parent, being with our family at the Shabbat table, walking in nature, helping a stranger, expressing gratitude.

In her own simple way, a child like Amit can help us rediscover this primal, human state.

It is a state that says, I’m neither slave nor master, just a human being doing the best I can with what I have.

Happy Passover.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

New apps help people avoid unwanted encounters

Trying to avoid an awkward encounter with an ex? Fearful of an embarrassing meeting after an argument? New apps can help people avoid bumping into others and provide escape routes if they do.

By logging on to Facebook and other social networking sites, users can choose people they do not want to see.

“Everybody has somebody they want to avoid,” said Udi Dagan, chief executive officer of Israel-based technology company Split. “For some people, it's their exes; for others, it's their bosses or even relatives that they don't feel like bumping into during their free time.”

With Split, a free app for iOS and Android devices, users log on to Facebook and select people from their social network they do not want to meet. The app sends an alert when they are nearby and shows a route on a map to avoid them.

The Cloak app for iOS works in a similar way through Foursquare or Instagram, sending a notification if the person comes from within half a block to 2 miles away.

“You can tap on someone and flag them,” said Brian Moore, co-founder of Cloak, a New York-based company. “That means you'll get background notifications whenever they come close to you.”

The creators of the apps, which are available worldwide, said all the information was already publicly available and that they were simply aggregating it into one place.

Split and Cloak gather location data from social network updates and check-ins. Photo-sharing network Instagram includes location data whenever a photo is uploaded. Both apps gather data from Foursquare and Instagram, and Split gets additional data from Facebook and Twitter.

The information is as accurate as a person's last update or check-in that contained his or her location.

Split also collects data from people using their app, and allows them to hide their location so others cannot see where they are.

Some people may consider the apps anti-social, but Moore does not.

“Anti-social is when you never want to see anybody,” he said. “In reality, everyone has a side where they just want to be alone.”

Craig Palli, chief strategy office at Boston-based mobile marketing company Fiksu, said the apps were an inevitable progression in the industry.

“So much of our lives have become open and public,” he said.” It's the first sign of a trend that people want to break from that.”

Editing by Patricia Reaney and Lisa Von Ahn

10 Israeli startups to watch

Roojoom is the latest buzzword you need to know for online content. It’s a new Israeli platform that helps publishers, businesses and  individuals curate Web content, organize it and guide readers.

Sounds similar to Flipboard? Marni Mandell, head of business development for Roojoom, said that while Flipboard lets people curate their favorite stories into a personalized magazine as soon as they click on a link, the reader is led elsewhere on the Web. Roojoom readers stay in a pre-organized content space even when they click on a link or hyperlink, leading to increased engagement and improved click-through rates.

“It keeps people on topic even if they go off topic,” Mandell said. “Roojoom is like a guided tour on the Web. It is going to change the way people read online.” 

The new technology won Most Promising Start-up at Microsoft Ventures Tel Aviv Accelerator’s graduation party in November. Roojoom joined nine other startups in the accelerator’s third program that helps new companies create world-class products and services and take a significant leap into the global marketplace.

At the program’s Demo Day, international and local media came to have a peek at the cool new technologies. The other companies to have concluded the accelerator program that are likely to snag headlines in the near future are: Appixia, CellMining, ConferPlace, KitLocate, Navin, MetalCompass, Kytera, Semperis and Vubooo.

“We are building extraordinary startups around the world,” Microsoft Ventures Senior Director Zack Weisfeld said. “One of our biggest strengths is our unique partnerships with enterprise customers and our ability to provide startups with unparalleled access to markets. We’re giving startups a head start.”

MetalCompass has already taken the mobile gaming industry by storm with its groundbreaking technology that lets users play in a real environment with their smartphones. 

But Jonatan Mor, CEO and co-founder of MetalCompass, said the Microsoft course helped narrow their focus to “partner with other companies from all around the world that use our solution, and we’re helping them create the next generation of entertainment products.”

Vubooo — the largest interactive engagement platform for pro sports fans — joined the program with an already growing customer base of more than 500,000 Android users on its beta platform.

Still, Itav Topaz, Vubooo CEO and co-founder, said the accelerator had much to do with the company’s recent achievements.

“The progress we have achieved in four months is truly amazing and would have taken us at least a year to get to the place we are now,” Topaz said. “The accelerator is like a co-founder of the company. Its goal is that we succeed.”

Guy Schory of eBay, a partner with Microsoft Ventures Tel Aviv Accelerator, said it has been inspiring to see the startups that come out of the accelerator program.

“We are proud to have been a part of it,” he said. “Combine this highly talented batch of entrepreneurs with world-class mentorship and the creative energy of the ‘startup nation,’ and you’ve got a tremendous springboard for success.”

Microsoft Ventures runs accelerator programs for early-stage startups or first-time entrepreneurs around the globe. Its Tel Aviv Accelerator, opened in April 2012, has graduated 34 companies so far.

Eighty-five percent of the first 24 startups from the first two cohorts raised an average of $1 million in funding within half a year of graduation. Five of the 10 most recent graduates received an average of $1 million in funding or formal proposals even before the latest four-month program ended.

“The accomplishments of our third round of startups, the rising number of major multinationals participating in the program and the significant amounts of funding already achieved all point to the increasing success of our program,” said Hanan Lavy, director of Microsoft Ventures Accelerator.

“We’re even seeing companies which are skipping the seed stage and heading straight towards A-round funding — a testament to the quality of the entrepreneurs in this batch.”

The 10 recent graduates were picked from a pool of 380 candidates. They include indoor location-based services, cloud recovery, tele-care solutions for the elderly, guided Web browsing and augmented-reality gaming.

Navin, a crowd-sourced navigation platform/app that works indoors and out, and KitLocate, software development infrastructure that allows companies to provide location-based services using minimal battery power on mobile devices, believe they have something new to add to the navigation technology field.

KitLocate CEO Omri Moran said the Israel Defense Forces trains people to find new ways to navigate out of different situations, and that has helped Israel become a powerhouse in navigation technologies. 

Most companies joined the accelerator program with an idea. 

ConferPlace, the first conference platform that delivers a full conference experience online from anywhere in the world, officially launched at the graduation. The company started in March 2013, introduced a beta version in July and went live in November.

“The mentors in the program helped us focus our path, finding exactly where we want to be,” said Hilla Manor, CEO and co-founder.

LAPD scopes out Israeli drones, ‘Big Data’ solutions

For the first nine days of February, eight of the Los Angeles Police Department’s top brass were 7,500 miles away from home, being shuttled around Israel in a minibus.

“They complained because it was like in the army — they went from place to place to place, and they needed some rest,” joked Arie Egozi, a partner at i-HLS, the Israeli homeland-security news site that organized the LAPD tour. “You know, the Israelis want to push everything.”

LAPD Deputy Chief Jose Perez, a good-natured 30-year veteran of the department who oversees its central bureau, tweeted updates at nearly every stop. On Feb. 2, he shared a group photo of the Los Angeles delegation visiting the corporate headquarters of Nice Systems, an Israeli security and cyber intelligence company that can intercept and instantly analyze video, audio and text-based communications. (A seemingly tongue-in-cheek inspirational poster on the wall behind them reads: “Every voice deserves to be heard.”) A couple days later, Perez posed for a photo with Samuel Bashan, whom he called “Israel’s premier bomb expert,” at a fancy group dinner.

The group visited private security firms and drone manufacturers, as well as the terror-prone Ashdod Port, a museum in Sderot full of old rockets shot from nearby Gaza (the same one United States President Barack Obama visited on his 2008 campaign trip to Israel), and a “safe city” underground control center in the large suburb of Rishon LeZion, which receives live streams from more than 1,000 cameras with license plate recognition installed throughout the city.

Meanwhile, the tour attracted some skepticism back home. Max Blumenthal, a journalist and critic of Israel with a hefty online following, tweeted: “LAPD delegation heads to Israel to learn lessons in control, domination and exclusion.” Another Twitter user, @JustBadre, tweeted asking Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti: “why is #lapd in Israel on taxpayer $? Should #lapd be training with forces that have human rights violations?”

As of press time, LAPD media relations had not responded to a request for the total cost of the trip and the source of the funds. However, a previous trip to Israel by four members of the LAPD bomb squad reportedly cost $18,000.

The LAPD-Israel bond was in large part fused by former LAPD Chief William Bratton, who made official trips to Israel to learn about the country’s advanced counter-terrorism tactics during his chiefdom from 2002 to 2009. At a town hall meeting in Los Angeles near the end of his term, Bratton said of Israeli intelligence experts: “They are our allies. They are some of the best at what they do in the world, and that close relationship has been one of growing strength and importance.”

The most recent visit was organized by Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commander of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, and led by Horace Frank, commander of the LAPD Information Technology (IT) Bureau. “We had this grant funding that was available for us to look at emergency technologies and best practices,” Frank explained to the Journal while in Israel. “Normally we do send people here [to Israel], but not at that level. So this was an opportunity to really bring some high-level command decision makers to take a look at what’s going on.”

Frank was joined by seven of his fellow command staff at the Big Data Intelligence Conference hosted by i-HLS in the beach town of Herzliya, Israel, on Feb. 6.

“On behalf of my chief of police, Chief Charlie Beck, and the 13,000-plus sworn and non-sworn members of the Los Angeles Police Department, a very heartfelt thanks to all of you for having me here,” Frank said in an opening statement for the conference, which brought together some of Israel’s — and the world’s — top cyber security and intelligence experts.

The LAPD’s head IT guy continued: “Now let’s be honest … This whole idea of best practices is just a euphemism for: We’re here to steal some of your great ideas. And a lot of great ideas and technology, indeed, you do have here in Israel. I would hope that you do not view this as a negative, because in this day and age of globalization, our needs are truly similar. In fact, we are much more alike than dis-alike. As civilized nations, we are all confronted with, in many cases, the same enemy: The ever-growing threat of terrorism and other major criminal elements.”

At the conference’s coffee break, Frank and a few of his colleagues spoke to the Journal about the highlights of their nine-day tour.

Frank said he was especially impressed by what he saw while visiting Israeli companies Nice Systems (as tweeted by Perez) and Verint, one of the companies whose services the National Security Administration (NSA) reportedly used in the infamous United States wiretapping scandal. Both companies already count the LAPD as a client. But, Frank said, “we’re looking at some of their additional solutions … They have a lot of new technologies that we are very much interested in.”

Nice System’s  president of security, Yaron Tchwella, spoke at the conference about the company’s ability to help government agencies capture and store the billions of calls, emails, messages and social media posts that their populations generate each day, then analyze it in real time to detect potential threats. Tchwella projected an image of Albert Einstein onto the overhead, explaining that Einstein’s dream was to store data dynamically, so that it mimics the capabilities of the human brain — tying incoming information to the vast amounts already stored, thus recontextualizing the big picture. 

For example, Tchwella said, “the connection between IDF [Israel Defense Forces] databases provides us with a grasp on reality, and allows for the connectivity between things that change between time, geography … and semantics. This is what we do every day in our brains.” 

Perez said he hoped the LAPD, too, would eventually be able to “use technology to incorporate all the systems that we have. That’s the wave of the future. We’re definitely looking at the ability to get that information out to the officers on the beat with a handheld. Something happens, and you’re looking at the handheld — almost like ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ — here’s a picture of the guy you’re looking for.”

LAPD watchdog Hamid Khan expressed concern, however, that emerging technologies such as Nice’s would give new legs to questionable LAPD policies.

“For us, it’s not only about the type of technology, but how this technology further enhances the existing capacity of any of these agencies to gather more information,” Khan said.

Khan, 53, a Pakistani native and former commercial airline pilot, formed the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition two years ago. The coalition has since been campaigning against a series of federal “fusion centers” created by the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 — including one in the Los Angeles. area utilized by the LAPD. The centers allow federal, state and local agencies to share information about civilians, in hopes of detecting potential terrorists.

Also in Khan’s crosshairs is Special Order 1, an LAPD policy that allows officers to document any otherwise lawful activity that they, or other members of the community, deem suspicious. (Including, for example, the photographing of certain government sites.) And new LAPD intel collection methods or surveillance drones, said Khan, would only be “adding more to their toolbox of being highly militarized in counterinsurgency forces” against protesters and movements such as Occupy. “Yet it is wrapped in this whole language of community policing.”

Two separate L.A. Weekly investigations in 2012 found that the LAPD uses expensive StingRay devices, which can locate cellphones (and their users) by acting like cellphone towers, and license-plate recognition cameras that track millions of drivers. Although both devices technically require a warrant to be used in a police investigation, there is little way to know whether police are always complying with the rules.

Peter Bibring, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, said the coupling of spy technology with watered-down police guidelines “represents a step backward to the [1970s-era] collection of information about individuals and their whereabouts without reasonable suspicion that they’re involved in criminal activities.”

And that, he said, “is very troubling.”

Surveillance drones manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Sky Sapience were also hot items on the LAPD tour. Both Frank and Perez lit up when talking about the HoverMast, a new tethered drone from Sky Sapience that was just released to the IDF late last year.

“There are several things on the wish list, but we did like Sky Sapience — that was incredible,” Perez said. “For me personally, just for my command, which is five stations, and all the special events that I have, crowd control and being able to see everything would be some technology that is needed immediately.”

However, Frank added, the HoverMast “has its challenges: from a political standpoint, convincing our political leaders, and from a community standpoint, convincing the community that it’s not Big Brother watching over you.”

A spokeswoman for Sky Sapience said the HoverMast can intercept wireless communications, and its cameras are capable of facial recognition. A spokeswoman for IAI said that while showing LAPD officers their drones, the company “wanted to emphasize the fact that drones can be very helpful in giving intelligence in urban scenarios… you need it now, you need it quick, you need to see what’s inside a window, and what’s behind this building.”

Nimrod Kozlovski, co-founder of Tel Aviv University’s cyber security program and a leading expert in the industry, argued that the Fourth Amendment would limit police in the United States from using Israeli technology to spy without a warrant. “But if you relax these standards or create too many exemptions,” he said, “there is certainly a risk that [civilians] will be subject to ongoing monitoring and interception by law enforcement agencies, which is certainly not the proper balance between government and individual.”

Many of the companies attracting LAPD interest have one thing in common: They were formed by veterans of the IDF’s elite, top-secret 8200 Unit, better known as Israel’s version of the NSA. 

“This notion that you collect mass amounts of intelligence in order to sort and analyze it has been known and expected in Israel for years,” Kozlovski said. “It wasn’t known and well-taught in the U.S. that secret services don’t operate on probable cause, so this mass collection took them by surprise. We [Israelis] tend to give more permission to counter-terror operations to use a technology that will be able to predict a potential terrorist. It’s more socially acceptable.”

Perez emphasized that as a local police agency, the LAPD has much tighter legal constraints than federal agencies to adhere to when adopting army-born surveillance and “big data” technologies. 

But critics worry that as federal and local agencies continue to collaborate, and constitutional law races to catch up with high-tech security solutions, lines will blur. “Now people are starting to realize, now that the NSA piece is out there, that this is very local, this is everyday 24/7 policing … not a science fiction movie,” Khan said. 

Israel is the leader in producing drones

This story originally ran on

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) are being used in conflicts all over the world, and military analysts say their use is only expected to increase. With the clear advantage of not needing pilots, who can be shot down or captured, sophisticated drones can perform many of the same tasks as manned aircraft.

“The Heron, made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) can carry several payloads at the same time — it’s a multi-mission multi-payload UAV,” Dan Bichman, a consultant for IAI and a reserve pilot in the Israeli Airforce told The Media Line as he proudly showed off the large drone. “Once I’m in the air, I can carry simultaneously 4 or 5 different payloads, and I can conduct a mission using all of them at the same time which is very unique in the UAV world. Another advantage is that I can stay in the air for up to 50 hours.”

Bichman said the US, France and Germany are all using Israeli-made Herons in Afghanistan to fly spy missions. He said several other countries have bought the systems, but he refused to give details.

He was speaking at a recent UAV conference in this Tel Aviv suburb, where more than 1500 drone buyers and sellers came together. They came to watch live demonstrations, meet with manufacturers, and compare prices. There was a significant representation from Asia, especially China and Singapore, although both journalists and buyers refused to be interviewed.

“This is the first international conference in the world that shows in one place unmanned systems in the air, on the ground, and on water,” Arieh Egozi, the editor of the IhLS, Israel Homeland Security website and the conference organizer told The Media Line. “Israel is a superpower in unmanned systems. They started with unmanned aerial systems and they have been flying now for more than 40 years.”

IAI announced that its systems have accumulated more than one million operational flight hours.

He said that Israel, which is the leading manufacturer in the world of UAV systems, has a range of systems.

“Israel has developed some systems as small as a butterfly, and others, like the Heron TP, which has a wingspan of 37 meters, which is like a Boeing 737,” Egozi said.

He stood in front of a large vehicle called an Air Mule, currently under development.

“The job of this system is to bring water and ammunition to the front line, and to evacuate wounded soldiers,” he said. “In the Lebanon war (of 2006) a helicopter was shot down when it tried to rescue wounded soldiers. If you use unmanned systems you don’t endanger any pilots.” 

These systems do not come cheap. Israel’s defense exports last year topped 10 billion dollars. Some of the larger drones cost several million dollars depending on what kind of cameras they are fitted with. At the Israeli booths offering systems for sale, former generals abound.

“We are a start-up company and we have developed a revolutionary vehicle called the Hovermast,” Gabi Shachor, a retired air force general and CEO of Skysapience told The Media Line. “It sits on a vehicle and with the push of a button the doors open and the Hovermast rises up to 50 meters. Within seconds you get real time video into your vehicle. Because it’s tethered to a vehicle by cable, it can stay up as long as you like – six hours or two days.”

He says the Israeli army has bought two systems for operational evaluations and his company are currently selling more, at about one million per system.

“If you buy a lot, I can give you a very good price,” he says laughing.

He says Israel sees the future of combat in UAVs.

“Israel is already leading in this area and UAV’s will do more and more of what is done today by manned platforms,” he said. “There’s no risk, since there’s no pilot. You can stay airborne for a long time. A pilot can’t stay up that long.”

Looking around the conference hall, there were very few women in evidence. Ofra Bechor, a field application engineer for Green Hills software, a US company which has a branch in Israel, says the UAV field is dominated by men.

“Software and defense are fields that have a lot of men,” she told The Media Line. “I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m a woman but I have been ignored when there are men around.”

Best. Site. Ever.

It’s common these days to micromanage what information we receive. Many of us have a list of favorite Web sites and blogs we regularly go to, as well as Facebook pages and mobile apps that reflect our individual tastes and ideologies. It’s a way of maintaining some level of control amid the chaos of the Internet.

There’s an opportunity cost, however, to micromanaging this flow of information: We rarely experience the joy of what I call “bumping into knowledge.”

That’s why I want to tell you about my all-time favorite Web site, Arts & Letters Daily (

This is not really a Web site. It’s more of a playground for human thought, a garden of fascinating ideas, a cocktail party for the incurably curious.

The site is wonderfully ugly. There are no cool images or graphics, just columns of words … striking, original words that are like mental speed bumps.

And, thank God, it’s not interactive. There are no inane comments from rabid and angry readers. It’s a one-way freeway of intellectual delights — they serve, we savor.

As many as 15 topic areas are listed on its masthead: philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, trends, breakthroughs, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, disputes and, yes, even gossip.

The home page features three column headings: Articles of Note, New Books, and Essays and Opinions. Under each heading is a series of brief blurbs, each one linking to an article from a broad range of publications, many I’d never heard of before discovering the site.

There are no ideological or topical boundaries. The only boundary seems to be: Is this a smart and fresh read?

The site is curated daily, which means you’re guaranteed a daily dose of brain food.

Just to give you a sense of what it feels like to be on the site, here’s a sampling of some thoughts and ideas you’re likely to encounter on any given day:   

“A modern Marx. Jonathan Sperber’s attempt to confine the man to his milieu misses the point. Marx’s ideas shape our world …”

“Technology confounds Sven Birkerts. What happens when this not-quite Luddite goes for a ride with Siri? A transcendental experience ensues …”

“Albert Camus’s writings on the Algerian war are marked by their honesty, consistency, even purity. His peers — Sartre, de Beauvoir, Aron — were cynical at best …” 

“ ‘Never before has anti-Semitism been so eliminationist in its rhetoric,’ says Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, ‘not even the Nazi period.’ Chilling. But is it true?”

“Before Soho was boho, there was Covent Garden. Its theaters, bordellos, and back alleys gave rise to a modern archetype: the poverty-stricken artist …”

“The demonic Picasso. In the absence of morality, it is monstrosity that carries the weight of his work, and shakes the viewer’s beliefs …”

“Could humans — so fractious and violent — forge a moral lingua franca, a unified system for weighing values? Let the metacognitive revolution begin …”

“For all of us, but especially for Generations X and Y, a sustained and quiet read is harder to get than ever. Cultural studies is to blame …”

“Income inequality will worsen, predicts Tyler Cowen, but revolution is not stirring. Our economic and social future will be a ‘hyper-meritocracy’…”

Get the picture? The site provides a constant flow of challenging ideas that hit you from all sides. Imagine that. You lose control. You are constantly surprised. You are at the mercy of a curator’s taste. 

One minute, you’re reading about a critic’s outrage at “America’s cultural debasement …” the next you read about how “regret is what makes us human.”

Right after a piece on how “putting pen to paper unlocks a sort of alchemy,” you read about Michael Ignatieff, “a man who would be philosopher-king … left Harvard and reinvented himself as a politician. Or so he thought …”

AL Daily, which is owned by the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the brainchild of the late Denis Dutton, its founding editor. According to Wikipedia, Dutton was inspired by the model of the Drudge Report but wanted to reach “the kinds of people who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, who read Salon and Slate and The New Republic — people interested in ideas.”

The plain, word-heavy design of the site “mimics the 18th century English broadsheets and a 19th century copy of a colonial New Zealand periodical, the Lyttelton Times.”

The site is so intellectually rich that it even includes a little section titled “Nota Bene” (Latin for “mark well”), which offers a collection of daily links to more quirky articles.

In short, the site is the antidote to boredom and predictability. It counters the modern-day habit of finding refuge in media channels that mostly confirm what we already know and believe.

It’s comfort food, but only for those who don’t seek comfort.

In that sense, it might be the ultimate Jewish site, designed not to comfort us but to challenge us, not to reinforce us but to move us, not to change our minds but to open them.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at