Monday, May 11, 2009

IBM Haifa Research Lab

Yesterday in Tel Aviv University, IBM Haifa Research Lab presented an introduction to their work [talk announcement]. IBM is the last of the behemoth's with a fully dedicated research lab. Gone are the days of pure research for the sake of "good for humanity and the world". Xerox research labs in Palo Alto California brought us windows, the mouse, laser printers and Ethernet networking. AT&T research labs in New Jersey brought us the transistor, Unix and the big bang. IBM brought us DRAMS, Hard Disk Drives, databases and sophisticated CAD for IC design. So what is so special about IBM research lab? specially in 2009? It is probably smaller and more practical in it's research projects. The talk covered six very different topics from AIDS gene database for determining therapy effectiveness all the way to cloud computing.
IBM has kept the research labs around the world going by directing them to more practical research in areas where IBM can develop a business. Researchers sometimes do not know where their work is going to end up. From past experience, it also seems that the researchers and the companies funding the work are not the biggest beneficiaries from the work. IBM seems to think that there is a way to change this. There are many areas in IT and computing where IBM's past leadership can direct future work. There are also new directions which IBM can use it's unique position in developing large systems and collaborating on a global scale.
Israel is one of the centers for technology research and development. Companies like IBM, Intel, Microsoft are aware of the high caliber technologist coming from Universities in Israel. While Israel is a small country in comparison to India, China and the US, there are still good number of people to tap for innovation and research. Like other business efforts in technology, research is not a sure thing. You have to take a chance, make and effort and hope that the work will yield something good - IBM thinks this is a worth while effort and they are doing it again and longer than others. If you are interested in the Haifa seminars, take a look at their web site and keep track of upcoming talks.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Stanley Fisher and Bank Governance: What Should Be Done

A curious story is on the newspaper headlines the last few days. Stanley Fischer the Israel bank governor seem to think that some bank executives are not doing the "right things". I am not sure what the "right things" are all about. But with credentials like past vice-chairman of Citigroup and author of the second most used university economic text book (Macroeconomics), Fischer needless to say has some clout. Now Israeli banks are not in as much trouble as the American banks. Israel did not go though the sub-prime loan disaster and even if you had money you could not have found a hedge fund in Tel Aviv as easily as in New York, London or even Paris. Because the economy in Israel is smaller than the American one and because Israelis basically have much less money to invest, we have not seen the downturn of the US or Europe. But still, Fischer feels responsible to the government and the people of Israel.

The case is about Bank Ha'poalim's board of directors' responsibility to stock holders and customers. Fischer is alleging that the board of directors has acted irresponsibly and has asked Shari Aarison the bank's controlling stock holder to fire Dan Dankaner the bank's chairman of the board. The issue is over the sudden departure of the bank's president Tvi Ziv and quick appointment of a new president Tzion Kinan. Why the shuffling, are they using Ziv as a sacrificial lamb? Get rid of the old president now the bank will be in good shape! All this management shuffling came with the last yearly report (2008) of a loss in revenue in the sum of 895 million shekels. This is the first time the bank has reported a loss, and it's a big loss. Apparently Fischer is unsatisfied with the quick firing and replacement of the bank's president. I wonder if Fischer is forcing American banking standards on Israeli executives. I am not making this accusation lightly. It is hard to describe the way things work in Israel until you face this type of situation. Israel and Israeli executives are much less formal in business management than American or European management. This is actually the biggest advantage of the Israeli economy has. Not only is the economy smaller, which makes it flexible and responsive, it is also informal and can do things Americans can't even imagine. To outsiders it seems like a closed private club, elitist at best, discriminatory at worst. Americans quietly accuse Israeli business of being one big fraternity. It seems like you have a better chance to be appointed a bank president by your old army buddy rather than by a committee selecting on merit or experience. Is this modus operandi a reason to intervene?

Fischer may have a point. After all he is in Israel to change the banking system from a small and isolated position to international (i.e. American) standards. If Israel did not to change anything why bring in an American to run the country's central bank? Fischer has history of flexing his muscles when he wants to make a point. A year ago the central's bank employees complained of being underpaid in international and industry terms. Fischer requested raising the salaries of all bank's staff to something equivalent of market and international levels. This meant changing the way the Israeli government paid employees and making the bank's employees salaries much higher than other government workers. Fischer claimed that he simply can not attract high caliber workers with such low salaries. The government postured that the central bank, a government agency, can not expect to pay double or triple of equivalent workers (judges, generals, physicians). In the end Fischer prevailed, not only that he got a nice budget to improve facilities, infrastructure and computing systems. But other government leaders do not have Fischer's clout (or is it chutzpa?)

It is unclear what will happen in this case. Should Fischer, the international reformer prevail and nudge Israel to a more formal business practices? or is Israel's small, flexible and clubby way more appropriate? What do you think? Powered by Qumana

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Israeli Venture Capital Report - Start-Ups Still Starting

The international accounting firm Price-Waterhouse-Coopers releases a venture capital investment report every quarter. The report for the Israel venture capital report for the fourth quarter of 2008 is interesting. Essentially investment in the start-up sector is flat. It has been this way since mid 2004. The other interesting fact is the contribution of the state to start ups through the chief scientists office. The report says:
"The domestic venture capital funds invested approximately $142 million, this sum representing approximately 49% of total investment for the final quarter of 2008."
- as far as the contribution from the state of Israel:
"20 companies, representing 25% of all companies raising capital in the final quarter of 2008, have received grants from the Office of the Chief Scientist. About $94 million of total investment funds has flowed into these companies. The data for 2008 reveal that 101 companies raising capital during the course of 2008 received grants from the Office of the Chief Scientist and that approximately $494 million of total investment funds flowed into these companies."

While most people consider Israel to have a free enterprise economic system, the support of Israeli start-ups with $94 million in the quarter makes it 34% of the total start-up investment. In any form of economic structure this would be a high component of government involvement. While venture capital investment is a risky business, the state sees this as a crucial factor in the economic strength of the state. Israel has been a technology start-up leader for many years. Both local entrepreneurs and foreign ones (mostly from USA) contributed to the Israeli technology sector with new companies which remained independent and many companies which were acquired by bigger companies (also mostly from the USA). This may account for the high level of Israel's government contribution to new companies. The other element here is the high level of innovation. No financial incentive would have lasted this long without the natural drive built into the Israeli personality. Engineers, scientists, business managers and tinkerers are driven by the desire to create something new. The drive to own your creation and to control the destiny of a company is what pushes many entrepreneurs. This is still true in the down economic times and after the second downturn in investment in the last decade. Actually, as some technology products heat up, more people come up with ideas for better products. Maybe this is the computer age version of what the Jewish pioneers did here 120 years ago. Let's see where the start-up investment goes in the next year and how much the technology market and the economic situation has over investors and creators. STAY TUNED...



Credit: נוסח הקרדיט: הארכיון לתולדות פתח תקוה ע"ש עודד ירקוני Jewish guard on horse (date unknown circa 1930 to 1948) Petach Tikva.


see the report at:
http://www.pwc.com/extweb/ncsurvres.nsf/docid/98033724DA2E5C368025721E00314441 Read More...


PikiWiki - a new Israeli Photo Wiki Project

In yesterday's Wikipedia Israel conference a new photo project was introduced. The PikiWiki Israel project is a photo site for personal pictures. In Israel over the years there were not as many agencies and media companies which documented the country. Even today there are many pictures from everyday life and from important events which come from individuals. I am sure this is true in many countries where the media does not cover the peripheral territory the way it is in Israel. In Israel there is a whole era from the 1880's to the 1940's which consisted of small settlements and no Jewish government. That era was documented by small organizations and at the time the Jewish settlement in Israel was one big experiment. Today the same is true with towns and people living far from the big cities. Besides the organized settlements (kibbutzim, villages, developments) there are still people who are "out there". This could turn out to be a very interesting project. So take a look at
http://www.pikiwiki.org.il/


source: pikiwiki.org.il -- source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PikiWiki_Israel_1112_hadera_%D7%99%D7%9C%D7%93%D7%95%D7%AA_%D7%A8%D7%95%D7%A7%D7%93%D7%95%D7%AA.jpg [link]

What I like about seeing photographs from individual's collection is how they see the world around them. Reporters and professional photographers tend to focus on and event or a place or a person. People who photograph their surrounding area seem to have their own interesting view of life. Sometimes it is just their family and town, still it is something that nobody else would bother photographing and keeping for future generations. PikiWiki.org.il is an Israeli site (in Hebrew for now) and it is limited in scope and capability. Hopefully just like WikiPedia has done for encyclopedic knowledge in individuals all over the world so will this project do for our individual images -> make them a more collective in nature.


Photographs are also the real record media of the last century. Before photography became popular people drew and wrote. But the camera changed the way we have been telling about our lives. The small camera was the first gadget. Before that men (especially, i.e. not women) had to do with other things. But the camera gave something for men to do, the first modern age hobby I guess. Since then we have had a steady flow of images from anything you can imagine. Once there are enough images on the site it will be interesting to see what we remember and what images are representative of historical events. Stay tuned and take a look...

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Learning Hebrew, the Internet for Words and Phrases

Most people here will tell you that Hebrew is easy to learn. That's somewhat true, Hebrew is an old language in origin, but a modern language in structure (Eliezer Ben-Yehuda revived the language in the 1880's). Israel tries it's best to teach new comers the language. Ulpans have been a part of the government's effort to get people speaking Hebrew quickly. They are intensive schools which teach Hebrew in a short time usually weeks or months. English is a usable in Tel Aviv and you can almost get away with it. But without Hebrew you miss many things that are going on. Also, people are much more open when it comes to 'talk-on-the-street' conversations. It is simply easier to get the real feel of Tel Aviv, the city, with Hebrew.



Once you get an introduction to Hebrew the next step is expanding your vocabulary. This takes time and effort. Luckily there are lots of resources out there. I just came across a blog of Hebrew words by a phrase book company (International Phrasebook). Using phrase books while visiting a new place is a great way to get started.
Jacob Richman's list of learning Hebrew is a good list to have: http://www.jr.co.il/hotsites/j-hebrew.htm Good luck with Hebrew, and have fun learning new words ~ if you make if fun it will be less of a hurdle!

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Aunt dies at 82...

She left 3 kids, 10 grand children and one great-grandson. They said that she was always childish. I guess some periods in your life you should be serious, that is at least what I was lead to believe. I am not sure who lead me to believe that - someone in the family, but I can't trace it to anyone in particular. Juana was 82 and smoked all her life. I don't think that the smoking was a big health problem for her. Some people cough and wheeze as they get older, she didn't. All the kids liked her because she cooked great simple food that kids like. There is a picture of my family eating at her place spaghetti and meat balls before flying to America in 1973. I don't remember that meal but remember that whatever we ate there was comforting - the way it should feel eating at a family's home. To some it is not that important, I think because they never had it, that feeling of being at an extended family home and that everything feels comfortable.



Waiting for the funeral. I didn't count but there were more than 50 maybe even 80 people. From the aunts and cousins there were about 20, the rest were friend and in laws from her grand children.


So what makes for a close family? Juana left a few clues, one is being close geographically. All the children live at most 30 minutes by car. The other is "just doing the normal family stuff". Just before Juana died her daughters planned on picking her up at 7 AM for a family BBQ. Family gathering and all the preparation of food, place, transport - that everyday stuff that finally gets 20 or 50 people to a dusty bench in a park seems to make a family in these modern times. Each family has it's own rituals. Some are simple and some are complex, but without these rituals it seems like we are not keeping our lives together. It's easy to drift off in today's world, there are too many "better" things to do than eat with the family.

Burial of Juana, 30 April 2009. // The other ingredient in a close family is "don't pretend". This sounds simple but it is not. It seems to me that most people pretend in some way. Some pretend that they are more than they are and some pretend that they are less. Some try to be more fancy or classy then the rest. I think that is what makes people comfortable with you. Pretending simply makes people uncomfortable which is what families end up with. Somehow in my family we have this range of comfort level, from places you can go and just sit for a while for coffee to homes that you feel comfortable for an event all the way to places which you don't even go. I happen to live in a time and place where there was just a little more of the comfort places. Sad to see a little piece of it gone, but good to know that it was there.

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