Saturday, December 17, 2011

Response to Daniel Gordis

 Since the J’lem Post declined to publish my response to this piece by Daniel Gordis, I get a second chance of sorts by posting it here:

Daniel Gordis’ diatribe is both uncharacteristically whiney (“Bumper stickers, after all, are so much more appealing than thinking.”  “What are we going to cheer instead?  Moderation?  Thought?”) and uncharacteristically ill-conceived.  Whatever he may think of “not one inch” as a policy, he should contrast it with one under which Israelis will not “continue to die, year after year, endlessly”.  It may be a stupid policy.  There’s room to say it isn’t a policy at all.  But instead of attacking it on its demerits, he chooses guilt-by-association with Michelle Bachmann and American armchair Zionists, and derides them all for the temerity of thinking they know better than “all of Israel’s leaders”.  Is that an argument?  Is there some axiom that asserts that at least one of Israel’s leaders at any given moment must be right?  Has Gordis himself never argued a position for which he found no support among our leaders?  If not, he belongs to a very exclusive club.

He then turns to the legislative initiatives about the Supreme Court.  There are many who have given calm, reasoned explanations for these laws, and precedents from other Western democracies.  Whether they’re right or wrong, none of them rely on the times being “dire”, and the fact that they “horrify” this or that group isn’t exactly relevant to the kind of elevated public discussion that Gordis claims to seek.  Also, the fact that the Court is “well-functioning”, even if granted, has no bearing; none of the proposals is meant to make it more efficient, but rather more representative.

I wouldn’t have expected Gordis to describe our democracy as “fragile”, and I suspect that in another context – one where he’s not desperate to drive home these bombastic points – he would say the opposite.  That’s just my suspicion, mind you, but what I find even harder to credit is that he actually shares the opinion, recently expressed by ex-president Clinton, that writes off much of our electorate.  He’s been too consistently reasonable in the past for me to believe that he thinks our democracy is fragile because the wrong people have the vote.  Maybe he had a deadline and was fighting off the flu.  I don’t know, but I prefer to give those who disagree with me the benefit of the doubt.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Response to R. Yosef Blau

[The Jerusalem Post saw fit to print this, but cut it down by about half.  They probably did it a service in some ways, but it seems a reasonable use of the blog to put it here in its unabridged form.]

R. Yosef Blau writes persuasively about the mis-education of many Religious-Zionist youth.  He focuses on their being taught a simplistic (and inaccurate) view of our place in the world, our conflict with the Arabs and the religious value of our territorial patrimony.

I think he is quite correct, but I also think that the problem is, in a way, deeper:  It’s not simply that we have given up on teaching nuance, tolerance and a deeper understanding of our sources.  We have given up on teaching, period.  Our community, along with the surrounding culture, has adopted the idea that teaching children to know things and do things – what we once called Education – is neither possible nor necessary.  Not possible, because we have lost our ability to maintain discipline.  Not necessary, because the really important work is in socializing and engaging the children – knowledge can come later, but if we don’t get their emotional commitment now, we never will.

Religious Zionists are sometimes even more extreme in this view than members of other communities, out of concern that their children will either give up religious observance or join the Haredim.
The result is not only widespread ignorance, but a puffing-up of the kids’ sense that their opinions are as valuable as anyone’s and they need no consultation before ditching school to “defend” an outpost, commune with Nature or deface a mosque.

The most telling remark in R. Blau’s piece is that “the message communicated is that demonstrating is more important than learning”.  It’s true, but it should be seen in context:  In today’s education almost anything is more important than learning.

The corrective is not simply to improve teaching – how effective can that be when the whole activity is devalued?  It’s to get our educators (and parents) back to doing their jobs, which do not include heart-to-heart talks, rap sessions, watching movies, going to demonstrations or attending strings of airy “symposia”.  They are addicted to “informal” education, and like all recovering addicts they should avoid their poison completely, lest they slide back.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Software Talent in Israel

I posted a comment to Michael Eisenberg’s blog entry in which he warns of a dearth of programmers in Israel familiar with what he considers important technologies.

In addition to my rebuttal points there I sent him an email with a couple of others, which I’ll share here:

·         Training people on non-Microsoft technologies is not such a big deal, assuming that they’ve got a good grounding in the discipline.  Unfortunately, that’s unlikely because of the academic situation, which is a better candidate for your vituperation than the use of Microsoft in the Army.  Academic degrees in CS here tend to be heavy on Math and theory and light on understanding how computers actually take the code that you write and do things with it.  I got that in grad school at NYU and use the knowledge almost daily.  On the other end of the spectrum are the technical degrees, which give more practical training in programming but even less fundamental understanding than the academic programs.  And neither of them teaches any Software Engineering principles (like why OO is good or when Agile is appropriate).

·         I don’t have experience with Ruby or Rails, though I’ve looked them over.  They seem to be a very quick method – maybe the quickest around – to throw a Web site up, but that doesn’t make them cutting-edge technologies.  I believe that they’re not, and I’d bet good money that they never will be.  Which isn’t to say that you can’t make a mint building your business on them, but that’s true of Microsoft technologies too.  And don’t even get me started on JavaScript, which your guys seem so hot for.

To paint with a very, very broad brush, I find that the major problems faced by startups are managerial and due to a lack of philosophical bent (usually accompanied by extreme arrogance) on the part of the executive team.  Among other things, this tends to make them go straight from too small and harried to develop anything efficiently to too big to be flexible.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I’m particular about the way thoughts are phrased.  I don’t mean that I’m pedantic about grammar and word-choice (though I am), but rather that I want thoughts to be phrased in a manner that’s clear, concise and unambiguous (and just to be clear, concise and unambiguous, I’m absolving cases where vagueness, prolixity and ambiguity are used for literary effect).

One type of irritant is the overuse of prepackaged, “approved” catchphrases and locutions that make speech sound like legal contracts.  Anyone remember when the PLO was the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and that had to be repeated any time it was mentioned, as if the description was part of the name?  Nowadays we have “two states living side-by-side in peace and security” and “just and secure peace”, among others.  I understand that there are people out there just waiting to pounce on any deviation from the approved language, claiming that it indicates ideological apostasy.  What I understand less is why we don’t simply ignore those people in favor of the ones who just want to scream “Okay, Okay!  I get the point!  Can we please move on?!”  We obviously should favor those latter over the Thought Police, as well as unclutter our public discourse.

Some catchphrases are rather bizarre, in that it’s unclear what political orthodoxy is being observed in their use.  An example is “Libyan Strongman Muammar Gaddafi”.  Was he elected “Strongman”?  Is that his official title?  Does it appear on his letterhead, as in “Office of the Strongman of Libya”?  Was there something lacking in “tyrant” and “dictator”, or President-for-Life or whatever his official title is? (Wikipedia says he gave up “Prime Minister” and wants to be called "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution"; I guess “Strongman” is an improvement on that, but still.)

A related vice is the Unacknowledged Euphemism.  Think “Pro Choice” and “Pro Life”.  It looks like those are going to be with us for a while yet, but what spurred me to write this post is my sense that one of the more pernicious unacknowledged euphemisms seems to be losing currency:  People are finally giving up calling Pro-Palestinian activists “Peace activists”.  This feeling had been creeping up on me for a while, but before writing this I did a minimal validation by Googling the two phrases for references in the past five years and in the five years before that.  In the past five years “Peace activists” Israel outnumbers “Palestinian activists” Israel by three-to-one, but in the five years preceding the ratio was fifty-to-one.  Of course this is no sort of proof, and even if it were a clear indication of change in usage it would offer no clue as to cause, but part of an accurate apprehension of reality – which is what I’m always trying for – is accepting when something actually goes right.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bad Op-Ed, Good Riddance

I suppose there’s some comfort to be derived from Ephraim Sneh’s recent Op-Ed in the ‘Times (Bad Borders, Good Neighbors).  After all, he admits that the ’67 border sare indefensible and that a Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized.  Other than that, the piece is just crammed with silliness.  I mean, some silliness was probably edited out for space, because I don’t think any more silliness could fit.  Just as an exercise, let’s take a brief look:

…his use of this argument to reject the only viable formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace — a negotiated two-state solution based on mutually agreed upon land swaps — is wrong…

This is an oft-repeated – but never, ever supported – idea.  It assumes both that no other arrangement is likely to last (my loose interpretation of viable) and that this one is.  I have not seen anyone bother to explain why.  What topographical, political or historical significance is there to that border?  No, I’m pretty sure its only significance is that if the Arabs were to end up with less than that it would be hard for them to pretend that they didn’t lose their war with Israel.  But let’s move on.  (Really, I’m uncomfortable with this whole business, which sounds too much like one of those right-wing blogger rants.  Still, I won’t let that stop me, as too few people point out the horrible stuff that passes for informed opinion.)

In the 44 years since, the geography has not changed, but the threat has… Short- and medium-range rockets, mortars and missiles …

I see mention of a new threat, but I don’t see that the original one has disappeared or been made less significant.

That is why the border between the West Bank and Jordan must be made impenetrable. This cannot be done remotely, from the 1967 lines; it will require a joint Israeli-Palestinian military presence along the Jordan River. Such joint military activity would not violate Palestinian sovereignty and could be modeled on Israel’s current coordination with Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.

I’m not a military man, and Sneh is, but I strongly suspect that the idea of an “impenetrable” border is, well, suspect.  And why exactly would forced military cooperation not violate Palestinian sovereignty?  Remember that our current security cooperation with the Palestinians has had its ups-and-downs, and that it exists in the context of our ability to enter their territory at will, to control their borders and much of their internal movement.  Take all that away and we may find the cooperation evaporating.

Also, the implication is that the Palestinians, the Jordanians and the Israelis are on the same side against the Jihadists.  Does it even need pointing out that the reason for this deal is to protect us from the Palestinians and Jordanians too, as these too are people who have tried to kill us?  In fact, these arrangements are most-specifically to protect us against the Palestinians, so basing them on an assumption that they want to protect us is counterintuitive (I’m trying to cut down on the use of “silly”).

…the Palestinian state must be demilitarized. No tanks, artillery or missiles can be deployed within its boundaries.

Just a few sentences ago we were concerned with encroaching on Palestinian sovereignty; what happened to that?  And we’re now assuming that they won’t accept less land, but they’ll accept demilitarization.  Have they ever said they would?  I suspect not.

This security package would make the 1967 borders defensible, and keep Palestine from becoming another launching pad for terror.

That’s a new one.  We’ve been talking about military matters on the level of tanks and planes; now suddenly we’re talking about terrorism.  What arrangements have been mentioned that would prevent terrorists, armed only with light weapons and explosives, from infiltrating across the border?

It [the agreement] would remove the obstacle preventing moderates in the region from uniting against militant Islamist extremists.

Another common assertion, against which there’s at least as much evidence as there is for.

…the pro-negotiation policy of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, could collapse…

I’m not even going to bother.

In fairness I’d like to point out that Ephraim Sneh has contributed a great deal to Israel and I respect that.

Also, I have no personal idea of whether the ’67 borders are defensible or not.  I’m not trying to make any point about that per se.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Middle-East Experts

I’m going to take issue with what seems to be the preponderance of Middle-East experts.  Not just at the moment; this is more a meta-post (it’s something I do a lot; in fact, this parenthesis is by way of a meta-meta-comment).

I take issue with MEEs frequently, and it bothers me.  What, after all, are the chances that their knowledge of the subject doesn’t encompass mine completely, with a great deal left over?  How can the points that seem so obvious to me have so thoroughly escaped their attention?  Don’t they have direct access to decision-makers and others who make up the reality in question?  Aren’t they generally people of proven superior intelligence and ability?

These questions don’t apply to the Mideast alone, but to all the topics in which I’ve taken enough interest to form an opinion.  Literature, Evolution, Global Warming, Education, Theodicy, Management and more.  It’s not so much a matter of how I can be arrogant enough to oppose myself to recognized authorities in their respective fields; it’s a matter of my chances of being correct.  Either I’m just wrong, or Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Dan Kurtzer, Thomas Friedman and others are clueless (or part of some sort of conspiracy).  Frankly, I don’t like those odds.

And although many in my community share many of my opinions, that gives me no comfort, what with their being in the same situation as I am.  Plus, I’ve got one friend with some personal experience of Mideast experts with awesome knowledge and mental acuity, and who can sometimes offer reasonable explanations for what seem like unreasonable positions; another who points out that even academic hacks tend to at least have enough raw knowledge of their subject as to make mine seem inconsequential… The list of smart, knowledgeable people with good reasons why I’m wrong is not a short one.  I wouldn’t have it any other way, mind you.

And yet.  (Come on, you knew we were going to arrive here.)

The Talmud says that a judge can rely only by what his eyes see.  That may be taken as purely a statement of procedure for court cases, but another matter of procedure tells us that the opinions of the most learned judges must be given last, to keep the others honest – meaning it would be wrong for them to censor their own opinions of a case in favor of those assumed to know better.  I think it’s fair to infer that this not an argument against humility, but rather for taking responsibility for one’s own thinking. 

That’s a moral reason for using one’s own head.  Some practical reasons are:

·         One can generally find brainy and knowledgeable people who share one’s opinion.  Even if they’re less numerous, less prestigious and/or less popular than those who disagree, they should certainly provide intellectual cover

·         People, and that emphatically includes academics, politicians think-tankers and all manner of talking heads, have a strong tendency to think what those around them think.  True, to say that this undercuts the force of their positions is to argue ad hominem.  But the whole subject here is ad hominem – I’m concerned specifically with the situation where I have not been convinced of an expert’s opinion on the merits of his argument (if he’s even bothered to offer one) because of who he is and who I am.

·         In a discussion of anything human, such as what motivates a group of people and how they will respond to various stimuli, it’s possible that any difference in knowledge or ability among those making guesses is insignificant compared to the complexity of the task.  In A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, John Allen Paulos not-only questions the theoretical possibility of predicting the market’s behavior, he recounts how he himself, with all the knowledge and ability needed to know better, continually made irrational decisions

(I had at least one other good reason, but by the time I got writing this down I forgot it.  It is thus lost to History.)

So in the end I’m going to continue to hold opinions that are often at odds with the common wisdom.  I encourage people to argue, but appeals to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) are not likely to sway me.  (I threw in the Latin because, well, I like the sound of Latin, and because it lends an air of… authority, I guess.  Hah!)

Monday, June 27, 2011

You know, I can’t think of either a good title for this post or a particularly good way of introducing it, but this is my blog and I refuse to be tyrannized by such considerations.  I read the NY Times’ The Stone column today and was – as happens more and more lately – disappointed in the level of discourse.  Written by Jason Stanley (who, as a professor of Philosophy at Rutgers, one would expect to know better), it makes the point – at once tired and overblown – that one can use words and images to effectively silence one’s opponents.

Aside from a fugitive reference to “pass[ing] a health care reform”, all the examples are of propaganda in service to the Right.  One gets the impression that he is oblivious to this, but in any case his message ends up as “we can no-longer trust the Right’s speech, because it’s only used to deny to the Left the ability to be heard.”

As I read it I simply found it tendentious and conceptually loose, but on reflection it seems of a piece with the recent trend of leftist academics complaining “By attacking my positions my opponent is denying my academic freedom and trying to silence me; therefore, he should not be allowed to speak.”  Somehow they say this without a trace of irony.

An interesting side point:  Stanley’s point of departure is some papers from the ‘90s that claim that when women are portrayed as being insincere in their refusals of sexual advances, it essentially prevents those refusals from being “heard” – effectively silencing them.  Without buying into the terminology (the papers were, after all, produced by academics of Gender…  Hmm!  Is that like “persons of Color”?), I found the argument compelling.  Still, if we turn it around and ensure that No always means No, aren’t we robbing some women of the ability to flirt?  We may decide that’s a worthwhile tradeoff, but shouldn’t it at least be mentioned?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Executive Compensation

Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of Heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.
-          Thomas Paine
A while back I received an email inviting me – as the owner of a tiny slice of Verizon – to vote my shares on a double-handful of proposals for its upcoming shareholders’ meeting.
Mostly, I abstained (having – for instance – no clue about this-or-that proposed board member).  On a couple of issues I approved the board’s recommendations.
And then there was the shareholder proposal to place certain limits on the compensation that could be offered to Verizon’s top executives.
Predictably, the board opposed the measure.  The reasons fell somewhere short of coherence, but included the classic …the compensation opportunities provided to Verizon’s senior executives should be competitive with Verizon’s peer companies…
This would make sense were there an insufficient pool of applicants who could successfully run Verizon or any of its peers.  Verizon would then have to compete with those peers to attract and retain one of these applicants.  I would call that situation “imaginary” – except that I can’t even imagine it.  Let’s examine some of the things that would have to be true to make such a situation real:
·         A company’s top executives account to a significant degree for its chance of success.  (I can see how this idea would be attractive to conspiracy theorists and those with a visceral respect for authority.  By the same token I find it as likely as the Illuminati really running the world or the Secretary of Education determining the outcome of my child’s schooling.)
·         The effect these executives have on the chance of success is deliberate.  (If their decisions are crucial, but they make them by tossing coins, we can hire a coin-tosser for considerably less.)
·         One can recognize which people are likely to take the actions that are likely to increase the chance of success.
·         The pool of these people is small enough, relative to the number of companies wanting to hire them, to bid their price up.  Together with the previous item, this means that our ability to evaluate people for executive ability is so fine that we can be confident in our decision to pay twenty times as much to a candidate on our short list as we would pay anyone who didn’t make the cut (the very idea of a small pool that can command huge salaries assumes that the salary spectrum is not continuous).
·         The difference in salary couldn’t be used in ways that are even more likely to enhance the chance of success.  I. e., the $10 million executive is worth more than twenty $500 thousand executives, and more than 500 line workers.
Personally, I think the items on the list range from the improbable to the wildly improbable, but hey – I could be wrong.  Compensation committees, though, should be pretty darned confident that all the above are true to make the decision to spend millions on an executive.  Remember, we’re in a bottom-line, no-nonsense, dog-eat-dog business!  How else could we justify sending hundreds of jobs overseas?
For whatever my shares are worth, I’d frankly rather not have such people making decisions about my money.
Now, I’ve heard some, subscribers to the “heroic” theory of executives, compare them to sports stars and industrialists, but all they really have in common are their incomes, which is rather circular.  Baseball players demonstrate ability in an artificially narrow domain, where the connection between hitting a homer and winning a game is obvious, as is who hit the homer; and the sales of golf clubs with Tiger Woods’ signature can easily be compared to others, so the value of his endorsement, too, is demonstrable.  And industrialist incomes aren’t determined by committee; whatever their competence, they make their money by selling things that are theirs.
In short, people who make these comparisons are confusing the issue of income disparity with the issue of executive compensation.  One needn’t believe that no one should be super-rich to see that there’s no business sense in paying multi-million-dollar salaries to top executives.
I write this at a time when initiatives to legislate salary caps are having something of a vogue.  I’m not in favor of such legislation, any more than I favor the government stepping in to prevent other stupid behavior.  Freedom includes the freedom to err.  (Also, I don’t assume the people implementing such policies to be any more competent that the ones they’re overseeing.)
But the idea that there exists this natural aristocracy of top executives is as repugnant as it is unsupported, and I for one intend to keep voting my few shares in that direction.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More (Mis)Management

In the interest of full disclosure, and so that this comes off a bit less like a rant, I should start by pointing out that I have been fortunate enough to have a number of very good managers during my career, starting with Bob Kornegay and Joe Mezzaroba at Bell Labs, then Joel Rosner on Wall Street, Dave Koppel at Excalibur and Jeff Schneiderman at Atomica (now  There were others, but these stand out.

And what made them stand out?  It wasn’t their mastery of the techniques of management, though certainly they all had that to one extent or another.  No, it was their personal virtues.  Patience. Thoughtfulness.  Humility.  Professionalism.  Having these qualities will not necessarily make one a good manager (as I mentioned in the previous post, managing well is hard), but lacking them will just-about guarantee being a bad manager.  Yes, I’ve seen managers (me most of all) fail to estimate schedules correctly, fail to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of subordinates, fail to hire the right people and fire the wrong ones and misapprehend trends in technology and the market.  But the really spectacular implosions have been due to arrogance, selfishness and plain bad manners.

Is that too vague?  Okay, let’s say your company makes fardels.  They’re good fardels, but the market is pretty-much saturated, so neither your price nor your market share is likely to go up.  You come up with the novel idea of leasing fardels, rather than selling them outright.  You invest heavily in this new direction, hiring sales and marketing personnel with leasing (although without fardel) experience, setting up booths at trade shows, advertising and having your fardel-scientists develop features geared towards the new business model.

And then it turns out that nobody seems interested in leasing fardels.

If you’re a good manager, perhaps you immediately scale back your new expenditures while reevaluating your strategy, perhaps you solicit feedback on why customer enthusiasm is below expectation; perhaps you solicit ideas from your scientist for a fardel-leasing “killer app”, or run a “why I’d rather lease a fardel in 500-words-or-less” write-in contest, looking for fresh ideas.  Frankly, I have little idea, both because I don’t know what a fardel is (the word actually means “bundle”, but was used as a substitute for “widget” in Starwell, by Alexei Panshin) and because, as I said, I’m not that good a manager.

If you lack those managerial skills and that creativity but have character, perhaps you back off of the leasing idea, trim staff and hope to weather the crisis and slowly rebuild the original business; perhaps you try to sell the original infrastructure to a competitor.  In any case you solicit opinions, notably from your subordinates, act with renewed caution since so much is at stake, cut staff and salaries – your own first – only out of necessity and in general act like a responsible adult.

But with-or-without skills, if you lack character you’ll refuse to consider that your idea is faulty.  Instead, you’ll blame your sales people for incompetence, your scientists for developing inferior fardels and failing to suit them to leasing; you’ll replace key people in all departments, thus losing valuable experience and institutional knowledge; you'll redouble spending on your leasing campaign by stripping budgets from other departments until they can barely operate, then you’ll blame them for their reduced productivity; you’ll borrow money based on your company’s previous solid standing, not letting on to the lenders that the basis for that standing no-longer exists.

These things happen every day, although the spectacular failures often take years of mundane bad behavior before they come to a head.

If I’m still being vague (Fardels?  Really?), perhaps it’s because I don’t much believe in categorical imperatives of management.  I mistrust big, sweeping rules and statements about How Things Are and How They Work.  I have little rules, some of which are practically tautological (which makes it all-the-more surprising that they’re so often ignored) and none of which is likely to break a company in its breach.  Here are a couple:

·         Authority and Responsibility should correlate.  I constantly see cases where people are doomed to failure, held accountable for results while denied the authority for basic decisions about how to get those results, while on-the-other hand monsters are created by letting people make decisions whose impact, if negative, never reflects back on them;

·         Don’t assume that your subordinates are your inferiors.  How many times have you seen pep talks have the opposite effect because the staff – having at least the intelligence of ten-year-olds – see right through them?  How much good advice has been ignored because it came from someone with too low a pay grade?

Enough for now.  Perhaps in a future post I’ll discuss the feudal mentality that’s behind many of these fiascos, and it’s prevalence in Hi-Tech.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Many years ago (I’ve reached an age when much of what’s happened to me can legitimately be described as “many years ago”; it’s like a fairy tale…) I read The One Minute Manager.  I don’t remember much from the book – there wasn’t much to the book – but I have the lingering impression of a sort of Zen management style, where the managing guru mostly stares out the window with his hands clasped behind his back and lets problems sort themselves out.
Maybe my memory is faulty, or maybe I’m giving the book a bad rap, but my point in leading with it, at least with how I remember it, is to contrast it with my own belief that Management is hard.  Shepherding even a small project to completion typically involves many factors, most of which do not lend themselves to prediction, many of which depend on irascible, imperfect and inherently unpredictable people.  It’s no wonder failure, or at least incomplete success, is the rule.

But I want to contrast that – the difficulty of managing successfully – with the fact that it’s fairly easy to not be a moron, and yet managers fail in this task with frustrating frequency.  Before I list some of the most common mistakes of my experience, here’s a very expressive anecdote I just heard:

This is from an old friend and sometime colleague.  He was present at a meeting in the offices of a seed venture fund on the day that a newly-hired management consultant made her first appearance.  The meeting included the consultant, my friend, the CTO of one of the fund’s portfolio companies, the venture partner responsible for that company and perhaps a few other people.  With impressive insouciance, the consultant proceeded to take her shoes off, put her feet up on the conference table and inform the CTO that the R&D team was going to produce software releases according to her (yet unwritten) timetable or they would be fired; and if he didn’t have the authority to do that – she did.

I hear this and I wonder:  Where do these people come from?  Were they raised by wolves?  Who is this woman’s mother?    Meanwhile the partner is grinning his approval of her assertiveness and can-do attitude.

Not surprisingly – at least not to anyone with his head screwed on straight – the timetable was completely unrealistic and the company ultimately imploded.  It seems failure definitely was an option.

More later on Managers Behaving Badly.

Monday, June 06, 2011

If you've ever wondered where the Tomcat class-loader got a particular class from (and which of us hasn't been), or were stumped by a NoSuchMethod exception, this may be of use to you.
There are plenty of sites that will explain the rules by which Tomcat loads classes, but what I really needed was code that would give me programmatic access to the effective classpath of my webapp at runtime, so that I could figure out what the heck was happening. Not finding such code anywhere (though I'm sure it's out there somewhere), I wrote it:

            private String cpString() {
                        int i = 0;
         StringBuilder sb = new StringBuilder();
                        for (URLClassLoader cl = (URLClassLoader) getClass().getClassLoader();
               cl != null;
               cl = (URLClassLoader)cl.getParent()){
                  sb.append("\nclassloader level ").append(i++).append(":\n");
                  for (URL url: cl.getURLs())
          sb.deleteCharAt(sb.length() - 1);
          return sb.toString();

This should work in any Java application, though you'll probably have to change the type of the class-loader, and perhaps substitute something else for getURLs().

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Shalom Berger just posted the latest issue of Lookjed, wherein I have a post.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of literary connections, is it possible that Smash Mouth’s “You are my Number One” was influenced by A. E. Housman?  One of the more famous poems in A Shropshire Lad, number XXXII, goes

From far, from eve and morning 
  And yon twelve-winded sky, 
The stuff of life to knit me 
  Blew hither: here am I.
Now -- for a breath I tarry 
  Nor yet disperse apart -- 
Take my hand quick and tell me, 
  What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer; 
  How shall I help you, say; 
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters 
  I take my endless way. 

I suppose it’s more likely that these are simply common human sentiments – which is why they have such broad appeal – and the song lyrics were simply another expression of them…

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Driving to Rehovot this evening, Once in a Lifetime came on the stereo, and after repeating some of the wonderfully quirky lyrics to my wife, I mentioned that it seemed a very appropriate theme song for Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which of course sent me into a synopsis of the movie…  So here’s the thing:  Am I the only one to have noticed the overwhelming resemblance of that movie to Being There?  They’re both about mysterious cyphers (who appear terribly defective but give occasional glimpses of the supranormal) who fall in with more mainstream people, who proceed to project their own thoughts and expectations onto the mystery men?

It could be that this is basic stuff in Cinema 101, but Googling the two titles didn’t produce any relevant results, certainly nowhere near the top.

Okay, you can go back about your business.

Friday, May 27, 2011

On the matter of realpolitik and the idea that “nations don’t have friends, they have interests,” I’d like to start with some quotes from Thomas Jefferson:

The Moral duties which exist between individual and individual in a state of nature, accompany them into a state of society & the aggregate of the duties of all the individuals composing the society constitutes the duties of that society towards any other.

I am in all cases for a liberal conduct towards other nations, believing that the practice of the same friendly feelings and generous dispositions which attach individuals in private life will attach societies on the larger scale, which are composed of individuals.

I think with others that nations are to be governed according to their own interest, but I am convinced that it is their interest in the long run to be grateful, faithful to their engagements, even in the worst of circumstances, and honorable and generous always.

The interests of a nation, when well understood, will be found to coincide with their moral duties.

We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties.

I think Jefferson understood that there was no way to prove assertions of the utility of morals and friendship in the dealings of nations.  Note in the quotes above that the predictive ones contain clauses like I think and we are firmly convinced, whereas the straight moral statements are presented without equivocation.

In this humility, I think, lies the essential difference between Jefferson and the realpolitik crowd.  The latter will have states behave abominably just to show how far they are above the naiveté of the common ruck.  In the end, though, it’s just vanity and showmanship, since they’re no more capable of predicting outcomes than anyone else.  They may in fact be smarter, and certainly may be more knowledgeable, but those differences evaporate before the complexity of causes that move world events.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Well, obviously I never did make the time to keep posting, but since lately I've found myself commenting on various online publications (David Makovsky in The Washington Post, Jeff Goldberg in The Atlantic, all-and-sundry in The New York Times, etc.) it seemed more efficient to simply post my thoughts to my own blog, though it's still unclear to me how anyone will find it. It has a sort of message-in-a-bottle feel.

Anyway, I find myself incensed not so much by the flood of foolish and unpleasant opinions going around – most recently about Netanyanu’s visit to Washington – as by the almost total absence of certain things that need saying.  Here are a few:
1.   The pundits have been no better at predicting the course of world events than one might reasonably expect, meaning that to the extent they say anything falsifiable they’re almost invariably wrong.  Almost all of these people missed the boat on events like the fall of the Shah and the Soviet Union, 9/11, the war with Hezbollah, both Intifadas, the rise of Hamas and rockets from Gaza, and now the Arab Spring.  This would be fine – we are, after all, talking about predicting the future – if they had come away chastened and more cautious.  Unfortunately, that seems never to happen.  We are thus treated to an endless stream of advice on how to proceed in our dealings with the Arabs, all based on absolute confidence in how things will work out if the advice is followed (or, Heaven help us, not followed).  It saddens me that someone like Makovsky, whom I remember as being too smart for such things, falls into it.

2.   My friends – anyone within earshot, really – can tell you that I’ve always been against realpolitik, and in particular propping up dictators.  I’m not alone in that, but I seem to be alone in my reason for it.  Everyone else seems to have either been sure that it would ultimately be a losing strategy or that even as a winning strategy it was morally indefensible.  The “realists” were sure that the strategy would ultimately do more good than harm, and were willing to excuse it on that basis.  Notice again how everyone seems comfortable with his ability to predict the future.   My take on it was that, given that the dictators are doing wrong now while the harm done by removing our support is speculative, one would need way more support for that speculation than could reasonably be mustered.

3.   It’s amazing how the arguments surrounding Netanyahu in particular and the conflict in general seem never to deal with the fact that the only possible significance of the ’67 lines is that they’re fixed in the Arab mind.  It appears that accepting less than that area as the borders of a state would mean – gasp – losing, which is something that they can’t deal with emotionally.  Everyone talks about the issue as if it determines whether the Palestinians can rule themselves or not.  Without even pointing out the really obvious, which is that in almost every way they are already ruling themselves, someone should point out the merely obvious fact that they can rule themselves in a smaller state just as well as in a larger one.  In other words, they could have a state tomorrow if they were just willing to draw different borders for it, and since our philosophy holds that they have a fundamental right to rule themselves we should support that.  As far as I know, though, there is no such right to a state of a given size, or to tanks and anti-aircraft batteries.
Enough for now.  Let’s see whether I can actually keep this up.