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!)