From the category archives:

Media

Cat memes will become less prominent on Facebook

Recent changes to Facebook’s news feed algorithm mean that organizations and companies developing and publishing their own original content are now receiving a significant boost on the leading social media site. Two weeks ago, Varun Kacholia and Minwen Ji, engineering and software managers at Facebook, respectively, posted in the Facebook Newsroom that “we are now paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content…what this means is that you may start to notice links to articles a little more often (particularly on mobile). Why are we doing this? Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to [these kinds of] articles…to the latest meme” about dancing cats or photos marked up with funny captions (as in the example to the left).

The bottom line: “high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.”

Facebook’s move is not a surprise. Traffic from Facebook to news sites tripled in the past year. Facebook is being increasingly used as a news source (much as Twitter has also evolved). So why shouldn’t Facebook’s algorithm promote original news articles? Facebook hasn’t revealed the secret formula for how it will recognize “high quality content” but the Kacholia and Ji’s promise is clear: uninformative over-shared links and tired memes will be demoted.

All of this is great news for Blum Interactive Media clients that have engaged us to create original content to publish on their websites, Facebook pages, email newsletters and other social sharing services. Original content already ranked high in Google’s organic listings; now Facebook is joining the party. Take a look at the home page from one of our clients, Shavei Israel: they treat their website as a mini-newspaper, publishing 2-3 original stories (which we write) every week. The result has been dramatic – on Facebook alone, Shavei Israel and its related pages now have more than 60,000 “likes” and web traffic is up as well.

There’s a sidebar take away here too: trying to create “viral” material online just got harder…and easier. You can spend less time over-thinking and crazy planning what you hope will become the next mega-video hit. Instead, write the best quality content and the social networks will help you out on their own terms.

Facebook - Related articles exampleFacebook will also be showing “related articles” directly below the news feed post. Although you can’t control which articles will appear, our experience using similar products on our own websites indicates that at least some of the time, these will be articles that your organization or company has published. The more content you have out there, the more likely it will appear in this new Facebook section. See the example from Facebook on the right.

If you’re thinking about how to get going with your own original content strategy, keep in mind that it’s not a one-time thing. To stand out on Facebook, Google – really, anywhere online – your organization or company needs a regular stream of innovative articles and multimedia material. The aim is to turn your website and social media presence into a destination; a trusted source of compelling content that make readers want to come back – to subscribe to your newsletter, to like your Facebook page, and to share and forward what they receive.

Now more than ever, you can’t do this with a couple of lines and a cute picture in a blog post here or a press release there. You need to publish new material on a continuing basis. As your content appears more frequently in your followers’ news feeds and in search engine results, your supporters will know who and what you are about, so that when it’s time to ask for donations, or to sell a new product, they’ll already be primed.

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Something For Everyone at Israel’s Music Festivals

by Brian Blum on February 28, 2011

in Israel,Media

Despite this past summer’s flurry of over-hyped overseas cancellations, Israel’s music scene is thriving. Indeed, one need look no further than the extensive roster of festivals that paper the creative landscape – from the kabalistic city of Safed in the north, to the hedonistic beach town of Eilat in the south – to find a festival lurking in every corner. Whether you prefer jazz, rock, classical, choral, rap or klezmer, there’s surely an event tailored to your taste.

It wasn’t always this way. During the austerity years of the 1950s, festivals were hard to come by. One notable exception was the Ein Gev Festival which is still going strong, now in its 66th year. Held at Kibbutz Ein Gev on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee during the intermediary days of Passover, it was originally conceived to bring culture to the “distant” northern region of the country.

In the festival’s early years, that included a wide variety of arts – from ballet and folklore to choral and orchestral works (including the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra which made the journey up from Tel Aviv).

More recently, the Ein Gev Festival has focused on presenting Hebrew music and choirs. There are now more than 70 vocal performances including every one of the country’s 300 singing groups, some of whom have been together for decades. While that gives the festival less of a cutting edge feel than it had in earlier years, it is still quite popular with Israelis who enjoy following along with the nostalgic classics of the country’s pioneering days.

The festival scene took a major leap forward in 1961 with the launch of the Israel Festival, which to this day remains the country’s cultural anchor, bringing together dozens of performances from both local and overseas acts in a three-week period from May until June. While there is no shortage of international acts playing individually throughout the year, the Israel Festival hosts the greatest concentration by far.

World renowned musicians (among them Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Maureen Forrester, and Leonard Rose) in Tel Aviv for the first Israel International Music Festival, 1961 (Photo: GPO)

Originally staged at the Roman amphitheater in Caesarea, since the 1980s it has been centered in Jerusalem. The range of performances is staggering. In 2010, for example, among the 50 acts one could see a Lithuanian version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; dance performances by the local Vertigo troupe and Argentina’s Nuevo Tango; Itzhak Perlman conducting a program of young musicians; a theatrical version of a story by Nikolai Gogol; and nightly jazz at the Jerusalem Theater. There are also free musical street performances.

Israel Festival 1998 - "Hi five" band performs songs by Naomi Shemer at Jerusalem's Sultan's Pool (Photo: GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)

From fringe to folk on a muddy hill

The 1980s saw a further awakening of the festival scene, most notably with the Acre Fringe Theater Festival, which was modeled on the acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Acre version presents mostly local theater companies, but the backdrop is particularly compelling: the Crusader castle setting and archaeological sites of Acre’s Old City.

Festival artistic director Avi Gibson Bar-El is delighted with the venue, which draws its power, he says, from “the gentleness of the sea, the power of the ancient walls, the smell of fish and lavender in a virtuoso juggling act between languages, cultures, and religions.”

Scene from a play at the Acre Fringe Theater Festival, 1900 (Photo: GPO/Alpert Nathan)

The festival was nearly shut down a few years ago due to riots between the Jewish and Arab populations in this mixed town, but has bounced back and now draws some 200,000 visitors a year. It is seen as a sort of staging ground for promising playwrights, producers and actors.

While the Israel Festival and the Acre Fringe Theater Festival feature music prominently in their programs, there is no shortage of exclusively musical events. One of the earliest and most enduring is the Jacob’s Ladder Folk Music Festival.

Founded by UK immigrants Yehudit and Menahem Vinegrad on a muddy kibbutz hill in 1978, the festival has grown to become an internationally recognized program that attracts talent from around the world and close to 5,000 Israeli folk music fans. It is held twice a year at the Kibbutz Nof Ginosar.

Fans of Jacob’s Ladder compare the festival favorably with similar events in Europe and the US. Indeed, the relatively small size of Jacob’s Ladder gives it a homier feel that is perhaps more fitting for small Israel. The festival has branched out beyond its folk and country roots; in recent years rock, blues and a smattering of World music (such as the Balkan-gypsy-Russian band Yolki Polki) fill out the three-day line-up.

Jacob’s Ladder takes place just north of Tiberias, on the opposite bank of the Sea of Galilee from the Ein Gev Festival. A bit further north you come to Safed, renowned both for its mystical Old City – the birthplace of much of today’s trendy kabala – and a funky artist’s quarter. Both are the unlikely setting for a festival featuring European Jewish “soul music,” or klezmer.

The Safed Klezmer Festival was launched in 1988 and now features more than 100 performances, which fill every nook and cranny of the city as well as the local Red Mosque. Local artists set up their wares on craft tables and there are salutes to non-klezmer musicians such as the late singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Band performing at the Klezmer Festival in Safed, 2003 (Photo: GPO/Avi Ohayon)

The festival attracts upward of 15,000 visitors a year. Indeed, tallying up the demand for accommodations at the Ein Gev, Jacob’s Ladder and Klezmer Festivals, the upper Galilee region has experienced quite a boon.

At the opposite end of the country, the Red Sea Jazz Festival may be the best known overseas of Israel’s music extravaganzas. Taking place in Eilat (in and of itself an international destination, tucked between Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia), this festival is a major draw for international talent.

Singer Ahinoam Nini performing at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, 1990 (Photo: GPO/Alpert Nathan)

Held over four days with nine concerts a night, six “clinics” and nightly jam sessions, plus an outdoor stage facing 4,000 seats, it’s no wonder that the festival has been graced by the likes of Chick Corea, the Mingus Big Band, Tower of Power, The Manhattan Transfer, Ricki Lee Jones, and Spyro Gyra since its inception in 1987.

 

Meanwhile, classical music fans can claim their share of the music on Israel’s burgeoning festival scene. The premiere event is the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival, which takes place in the Israeli Arab village of the same name, just a10-minute drive from Jerusalem.

The festival is actually one of Israel’s veterans, inaugurated in 1957, but it was discontinued in 1971, to be re-launched in 1992. Music from Schubert to Bach, Mozart to Brahms, with a special “baroque hit parade” thrown in for good measure, is played in and around the Kiryat Yearim Church, with street performances popping up in the alleys, groves and grottos of the village.

YouTube: The Moran Singers Ensemble, Abu Ghosh 2007
YouTube: Opera at the Abu Ghosh festival

For hungry visitors, Abu Ghosh is also known for its outstanding hummus and knafe (an Arab dessert made with cheese and pistachio nuts), and the local restaurants do a brisk business during the weekend-long festival.

During the past 10 years, the festival landscape in Israel has taken a turn toward the new age. The biggest of the new age festivals is Boombamela. Launched in 1999, it is held during the intermediary days of Passover, and upwards of 40,000 people congregate on the Nitzanim beach between Ashdod and Ashkelon to go with the flow.

The festival grounds are divided into small “villages,” with a holistic area, which includes workshops in various forms of artistic expression, meditation and lots of yoga; a “green revolution” village, which – in full new age garb – describes itself as an “alternative universe that runs parallel to this one…waiting for you to switch sides” (it also features more plebian concerns such as a recycling center); a face and body painting area; and in recent years, a prayer quarter, for those who want to more fully observe the Sabbath.

The new age Boombamela festival at Nitzanim beach attracts more than 40,000 people

And then there’s the music, of course: Nightly concerts on the water; two trance dance floors in the sand with live DJ’s; and even belly dancing. And oh yes, for those with a less-inhibited vibe, there’s a separate nudist beach.

Sagol is a more laid back new age festival, which focuses on “love and meditation.” Sagol is the Hebrew word for “purple” (“the color of the third eye, signifying the metaphysical world,” its organizers say), the Sagol Festival is held twice a year and attracts a turnout of around 5,000 for those “seeking spiritual essence and awareness.” The main musical program is on Friday night and starts with the Kabbalat Shabbat (liturgical prayers welcoming the Sabbath) service.

The Sagol Festival, first held in 1993, is actually part of a bigger endeavor – the Sagol Eco-Village, which trains participants in sustainable building practices with mud, organic gardening, and daily meditation. Volunteers also set up the festival itself, which wanders between its home base in the Negev desert and locations further north (the Hof Dor beach and Beit Shean in the Jordan Valley have both hosted Sagol in recent years).

Israel’s many festivals take place primarily on weekends and during the Jewish holidays. One could argue that these art and music festivals serve as a counter-balance for non-observant Israelis to the more traditional rituals practiced by religious Jews, making them a sort of alternative spiritual nourishment.

In Jerusalem, however, festivals are not held on the weekends. That hasn’t led to a shortage of music, however. The capital’s leading event is the annual Hutzot HaYotzer festival, for more than 30 years the country’s largest arts and crafts extravaganza. Every evening at 9:00 pm Israeli superstars take to the stage in the historic Sultan’s Pool with the Old City walls looming above.

A live theater performance at the Jerusalem International Arts and Crafts Fair

In recent years, Hutzot HaYotzer’s musical line-up has included bad boy Aviv Gefen; indie rockers The Church of Reason; master of modern Israeli love ballads Ivri Lieder; outrageous rappers HaDag Nahash; and Mediterranean crooner Arkadi Duchin. And at NIS 40 (just over $10) a ticket, including both concert and entrance, it is undoubtedly Israel’s best festival deal.

The list of Israeli music festivals goes on. There’s ethnic, with the annual Oud festival dedicated to the Turkish instrument that looks a bit like a pear-shaped guitar. If you prefer something more dramatic, there’s the sunrise rock concert atop Masada at the Tamar Festival. Another festival devoted to a specific instrument is the Guitar Festival of the Desert, and for nostalgic Anglos there’s the annual Woodstock Revival.

Exclusively Jewish music is on hand at RockAmi, while energetic small label rock can be found at the In-D-Negev program. A tribute to music from Spain, Portugal and Belgium can be heard at the Dona Gracia Festival, while bible lovers will groove to the sounds of Ehud Banai and Dudu Fisher at the Bible and Love Festival.

Want to be sure to catch them all? Here’s a list of the top festivals in the country according to dates, along with links to their websites:

April (Passover)

May/June

July

August

September/October (Sukkot)

November

This article originally appeared in January on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
A related article on the Top 10 Music Festivals in Israel is on the This Normal Life website.

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A poster for the interactive movie "Turbulence"

“All filmmaking is based on a lie,” says Israeli Professor Nitzan Ben-Shaul. “In the narrative structure of a movie, it appears that there is only one possible ending – that the way it’s presented is the way it has to be. But in life there are always options.”

To demonstrate his argument, Ben-Shaul of the Film and Television Department at Tel Aviv University has created the world’s first, fully interactive feature film where the viewer gets to decide at various points, in real time, how the action will progress. “It’s nothing short of revolutionary,” he says. “It has the possibility of turning every one of us into potential film directors.”

Ben-Shaul is not a technologist – he teaches classes in cinema studies at Tel Aviv University and has written several books including Mythical Expressions of Siege in Israeli Films and Hyper-Narrative Interactive Cinema: Problems and Solution. So to create his interactive movie, he partnered with Guy Avneyon who built a sophisticated patent-pending movie editor and standalone player.

The technology is still under construction, as is the company. Turbulence (also the name of Ben-Shaul’s interactive film) is just now being incorporated and seeking angel investment. For Ben-Shaul, that’s less important. His focus is the process of thinking through the making of an interactive movie.

Ben-Shaul points to the Gwyneth Paltrow hit Sliding Doors which presented two alternative paths that intersected, diverged and eventually arrived at a single conclusion.

Turbulence the film is similar, except that the viewer controls the points of departure. The 83-minute suspense/thriller is about three friends who meet by chance in New York 20 years after they participated in a demonstration in Israel and were arrested. At the time, the police pitted the three against each other, which led to accusations of betrayal. There is also a love story that is rekindled.

The interaction takes the form of “hot spots” that glow when the viewer can make a choice. At one point, for example, one of the Israelis has written a message to his lover on his cell phone. The viewer can click “Send” or “Cancel”. If the viewer hesitates too long, the action continues according to a pre-determined narrative path.

Unlike previous interactive attempts, the transitions in Turbulence are seamless, which means there is no point where the movie stops and a flashing button appears with big icons to click. Once a choice is made, the film immediately cuts to a new scene. “That’s the language of movies,” Ben-Shaul explains. “There could be 4,000 cuts in a film, but if you cut on motion, people don’t see the transition, they just see the flow.”

While viewers make choices throughout the viewing experience, the film regularly returns to the main narrative. This means the writers don’t have to create 10 entirely different scripts (although in Turbulence there are several alternate endings).

Ben-Shaul is adamant that interactivity is not a gimmick – like the first attempts at 3D in the 1950s and 1960s. But he warns that interactive films must be carefully planned to avoid the errors of more primitive experiments in the past.

These mistakes include what he refers to as the ‘computerization trap’. “Computers can generate endless possibilities, but that doesn’t help the viewer in terms of drama. It interests computers, but not humans!” he says. Good interactive drama, he adds, is actually about “option restriction”.

Interactive movie producers should also not try to emulate the gaming world, he cautions. “It’s not about scoring and puzzle-solving,” Ben-Shaul says. “It’s about creating real, life-like situations.”

Turbulence can currently be viewed on either a Mac or PC. But Ben-Shaul is most excited about the red-hot Apple iPad. With its touch screen and media consumption emphasis, “it’s the perfect device. The iPad is a main target,” Ben-Shaul says.

Behind the scenes at Turbulence

The technological secret behind the film comprises an editor that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever created a movie, with a timeline, audio control, and multiple tracks. There are various additions such as a library of clips and hot spots that can be easily inserted.

The aim is to sell a standalone version as well as plug-ins for professional editing systems such as Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere and Avid. Ben-Shaul and his team are also developing a scriptwriting tool that will ease the creation of a hyper-narrative.

Both grassroots and professional filmmakers should be empowered. “We’re not aiming toward automatic storytelling,” he says. “That’s like robots today, which are so far off from what humans can do.”

Turbulence isn’t the only software company making interactive movies. Israeli alternative rock sensation Yoni Bloch owns a company called Interlude, which is moving in the same direction. Earlier this year, Interlude produced a music video by pop singer Andy Grammar that includes seamless interactivity. YouTube also has its own very simple interactive functionality.

Ben-Shaul acknowledges the competition but says his system is further along, not to mention patented. Turbulence also gives viewers the ability to actually move an object on screen (for example, to slide a letter out of a drawer) rather than just click or touch a point on the screen.

The idea for Turbulence was hatched in response to one of Ben-Shaul’s courses about the “siege mentality in Israeli cinema.” The professor explains: “Israeli movies are very close-minded. It comes from the society and the political situation; from war and ethnic tensions. Interactivity and giving people options is the opposite.”

Interactive movies are primarily intended for an audience of one. But Ben-Shaul says it’s possible for an entire audience to get in on the fun. Turbulence was premiered at the Berkeley Film Festival this year where it won the prize for “best experimental feature.”

In a demonstration of the interactivity at the showing, Ben-Shaul’s wife (who also works at the company) canvassed the audience at each decision point. Ben-Shaul then clicked the viewer’s choice from his computer backstage.

In the future, Ben-Shaul would like to build a system where everyone in the audience has a controller, allowing the movie to move in the direction dictated by a majority vote. In the meantime, Ben-Shaul says the showing at Berkeley was “very successful. People loved it.”

Ben-Shaul hopes to show Turbulence in Israel, perhaps at one of the country’s Cinematheques, though nothing has been finalized yet. For now, interactive movie fans will have to visit Ben-Shaul in his office at Tel Aviv University or watch a TV news clip and interview with Ben-Shaul on Israel’s Channel 10 which provides a hint of the richness of interactive moviemaking.

Beyond entertainment, interactive video might even help to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ben-Shaul suggests. Interactivity, he says, “develops thinking for people who are in what seems like an intractable conflict. It can be a real therapeutic tool.”

This article originally appeared on Israel21c.

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Does radiation from cell phones cause cancer? The jury is still out, with a recently released 10-year study organized by the World Health Organization saying no, and advocacy groups arguing that the research methodology was flawed.

Cell La Vie - peel on protection for your iPhone

Regardless of the controversy, a small Israeli startup isn’t taking any chances. In July, Wise Environment began selling a do-it-yourself kit to protect iPhone owners from radiation. The company claims that its product, dubbed Cell La Vie, reduces electromagnetic exposure from the phone by 98 percent.

The Wise Environment founders are on a mission. “Parents are driving their young kids to use cell phones, to keep in contact,” explains Ronny Gorlicki, Wise Environment’s vice president of business development. “But at the same time, they want to protect them from future problems,” even if it’s not certain that those problems really exist.

At only NIS 179 ($47), Gorlicki feels his product is a worthwhile investment “to defuse the question of what will happen 30 years down the road.”

Cell La Vie can be a bit daunting to install – it’s not a one-click software app, but a physical product – a thin film you apply to the front, back and sides of your iPhone with adhesive. The Cell La Vie kit also includes a spray and pump to make sure your phone is totally clean before you get started. “People are reticent in the beginning, fearful that they’ll screw things up,” Gorlicki says. “But it’s no problem to take it off and do it again. We’ll even send a replacement if necessary.”

Once affixed, the film acts to redirect radiation away from the body. “Inside the phone is an antenna,” Gorlicki explains. “The signal goes in all directions. We had to figure out how we can cover up the points where the radiation would penetrate the phone in the direction of the body while maintaining the quality of the transmission.”

Wise has so far focused only on the iPhone because of the extensive media buzz surrounding the device. “Even people who haven’t bought it are talking about it,” Gorlicki says, noting the “huge awareness in the market of ‘green’ in general and phone radiation in particular. We hear from people ‘I’d held back from buying an iPhone from concern about radiation. Now I just made the order because of your product.’ ”

Since every phone has its antenna in a different place, Wise will have to develop separate films for every type of phone – and for every version. For example, Cell La Vie doesn’t yet work with the iPhone 4, which has an entirely different type of antenna (one that has caused users no end of frustration due to inadvertently dropped calls).

Cell La Vie's Ronny Gorlicki

Wise is also focusing initially on smart phones. “They’re the ones with the higher price tag,” Gorlicki explains, “So people are more ready to invest in safeguarding themselves from radiation.” Smart phones, ironically, can increase their radiation levels as they detect signal strength. The lower the strength, the more the phone has to work to maintain a minimum quality of service, and as a result the radiation increases.

Wise Environment has other radiation-protection products in the pipeline (including one that may actually reduce radiation, not just guard against it) but is progressing slowly. That’s in no small part because the company is entirely bootstrapped; it’s relying now on sales from its iPhone product, which is available in Israel at iDigital’s Apple Stores and the stationary chain Kravitz, to finance future production. Gorlicki is optimistic and says sales are going well, pointing out that “There have already been reorders.”

However, given the company’s scarce cash situation, sales beyond Israel will have to rely on distributors. Gorlicki doesn’t anticipate opening a US or European office in the near future. And even if the patent pending Cell La Vie is as successful as anticipated, Gorlicki says that raising venture capital money will be tough.

He likens the Cell La Vie product to a mezuzah: “You don’t know if it has prevented some hardships or brought good things to you,” he quips. “There’s no immediate gratification in that sense.” He says that the problem is with the VCs, who want to see immediate results.

This is not Gorlicki’s first outing with a product that doesn’t deliver satisfaction on first use. In a previous position at Wizcom, he was in charge of marketing the ‘Quicktionary’ – a digital pen that you run over printed text to translate it into multiple languages. “There was a real learning curve,” Gorlicki recounts, “You had to hold the pen correctly, to start and end it in the right place.”

Cell La Vie is not alone in the market; one of its better-funded competitors is Pong Research, which has been reviewed widely, including in Wired Magazine and The New York Times. But Pong, by its own estimates, only reduces radiation by 60 percent and only from the front of the phone, Gorlicki points out. Both Pong and Wise have had their results verified, in Cell La Vie’s case at MET Labs, a California testing and certification company.

Gorlicki is proud that his product is entirely made in Israel and hopes that even as production ramps up in the future, the company will be able to resist the pressure to export manufacturing to China or another less-expensive location.

He says he would be delighted to cooperate with Tawkon, a company whose product indicates to smart phone users when their radiation levels are too high. They would be a good match because Tawkon detects the radiation and prompts users to take simple actions like “put the phone on speaker,” while Cell La Vie actually does something about the radiation emanating from the unit itself.

Regarding the WHO study, Gorlicki draws attention to the fact that the research was in part funded by the phone companies themselves. The study followed thousands of phone users in 13 countries to see whether people who had brain tumors reported spending more time on cell phones during the previous decade than other people did. The researchers reported that they couldn’t find any cancer correlation with cell phone use.

The study’s main purpose, Gorlicki claims, was to give federal agencies a benchmark of when radiation levels are too high. If the companies stay within those levels, they’re considered ‘kosher.’ But, he says, “we really don’t know how much and how long it would take for someone to reach proportions so high that he or she will get cancer.” Researchers are now considering a new, even longer study of up to 20 years.

Not to mention that cell phone usage has increased dramatically and phones have advanced technologically in the 10 years since the study was started. What might have been considered ‘average’ use in 2000 would pale in comparison with teenage cell phone use in 2010.

Perhaps the ideal scenario for Cell La Vie would be cooperation with, or acquisition by a cell phone manufacturer or operator. But Gorlicki isn’t optimistic: “They don’t want to have anything to do with it,’ he says, explaining that involvement could be construed as an admission that cell phone use might not be 100% safe.

Even with Cell La Vie’s protective film in place, cell phones still pose a danger – to your neighbor. Gorlicki compares phone radiation to secondhand smoke. “You could be getting secondhand radiation from the guy sitting next to you in a restaurant talking on his cell phone,” he warns. Will there eventually be cell phone-free environments, he wonders.

Beyond being potentially dangerous to bystanders, Gorlicki reminds us that cell phone use requires “good hygiene.” Even if you’re using a corded headset, you don’t want to stuff your phone in your pocket while you talk. The phone still emits the same amount of radiation. Holding it away from your body or placing it on a table is the safest bet.

Gorlicki is doing his best to live in his own ‘wise’ environment – the company’s headquarters are in his home just off of the HaBonim beach south of Haifa, in northern Israel. “I wake up and take the dogs on a walk near the shore,” he says. “What a way to start the day when you’re working for an environmentally conscious company.”

This article appeared last week on Israel21c, a great site for exploring Israel “beyond the conflict.” Check it out!

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Getting Away from Technology

by Brian Blum on September 6, 2010

in Interactive,Media,Research

A student on a class trip to Poland

I wrote in an earlier post about how human beings aren’t built to truly multitask – an action we increasingly rely on to parse all the data coming at us from the web or our mobile devices. New research is trying to figure out not only what happens psychologically when we try to do two things at once, but whether our brain neurology is being re-mapped by our incessant use of technology.

The preliminary answer seems to be yes, and it’s not necessarily good news. New York Times technology journalist Matt Richtel participated earlier this year and is now writing about a unique week-long backpacking trip undertaken by a group of scientists where gadgets were banned and their itinerary took them far out of the range of cell phones.

Would these highly connected researchers act – no, think – differently in such a situation, he asks?

The scientists were split, according to Richtel in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air interview program, with some feeling that “the constant stream of data was making it increasingly difficult to focus and concentrate” and others saying “the benefits of having constant access to information far outweighed any consequences.”

But all of the scientists noticed that they began to feel more relaxed and more engaged in the world. They slept a little better; waited a bit longer before answering a question. “You don’t feel in (such) a rush to do anything, your sense of urgency fades,” Richtel says.

But only after three days – that was the amount of time for the disconnect effect to kick in. This might explain why we feel more relaxed after a three-day weekend as opposed to a “normal” two-day break from work.

Why is this the case? A laboratory study had rats learning new tasks. When the rats were given time away from the task to process it, the action moved into memory and real long-term learning took place. Without that down time, the rats were more prone to forget what they’d just done.

We can extrapolate that, Richtel says, to our contemporary lives, where we rarely give ourselves a break. If we’re waiting for an appointment and the person we’re meeting is late, what do we do? We pull out our smart phone and check email, text, browse the Internet or play a game. Even people without smart phones may listen to music on an iPod.

What we need to do, Richtel claims, is simply “be,” to not fill every moment with something electronic, to let the learning consolidate in our brains.

Richtel is certainly not advocating a ban on technology. He is adamant that our use of the web and mobile devices has made us more productive – he uses the example of using a Google map to find an address than having to call the person and write down directions  – and he readily admits he couldn’t survive the 21st century without his addictions.

And addiction it is. Why do you feel compelled to check email constantly, for example? Because you never know when there will be something exciting coming in. Each new message gives the brain a squirt of dopamine. If you had advance warning that interesting messages would only be delivered at 4:00 PM, you’d be less inclined to alt-tab to Gmail throughout the day.

Indeed, The New York Times reports that the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour!

Technology is like food, he posits. You need to eat and there’s no reason not to appreciate tasty (and hopefully nutritious) meals. But “we know that some food is Twinkies and some food is Brussels sprouts,” Richtel quips. And we’re well aware that you can also over-eat which has obvious negative consequences.

What about our teenagers who are growing up on ubiquitous screens, frantically checking Facebook, email, tweets, chat and Skype wherever they are? Will their brains look different than those of us who had to go into the living room to get access to a screen (the television)?

The research is pointing to yes. Our brains are elastic, Richtel explains. It’s not as if our ways of processing information is fixed at birth and never changes. Each new technology modifies the neural pathways, in particular the frontal lobe which is the last to develop. How it does that is the subject of upcoming research which Richtel will be writing about later this year.

While our 17-year-old daughter Merav was away on a school trip to Poland this summer, she made a point of not checking in online. Merav’s experience in Poland, visiting lost Jewish communities and crying at the concentration camps, was intense – “difficult but meaningful” is how she described it upon her return home. Was her level of engagement different than her peers, many of whom were texting away at the dinner table?

It would be presumptuous for me to make such a claim. But it’s undeniable that our use of technology profoundly affects us. I, for one, am looking forward to the Jewish holidays this year – Rosh Hashana and Shabbat coincide in such a way that those who observe the High Holy Days according to a more strict interpretation of Jewish law will have a full three days of enforced technology deprivation.

I wonder how I’ll feel on the other side?

Matt Richtel received the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for a series in The New York Times on driving while multitasking.

A shorter version of this article appeared on Israelity.

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The Wedding Will Be Webcast

by Brian Blum on August 19, 2010

in Interactive,Israel,Media,Social Media

Sammy and Isaac

The happy couple "live"

A couple of weeks ago, we attended the wedding of good friends, Sammie and Isaac. The wedding was a blast with all the usual features of Israeli nuptials: chuppah, dancing, speeches and those greasy fried “cigars” stuffed with minced meat (of which I always partake too heartily).

There was one element, though, that I’ve never seen before (although maybe I’m just not invited to the right weddings). Prior to the simcha, the couple sent out an email that announced that, for those who couldn’t attend, the evening would be broadcast live over the Internet.

Now, live web streaming is nothing new and there are plenty of vendors eager to upgrade you to a “pro” account – Ustream and Livestream are just a couple that come to mind. I often catch up live online with TechAviv, a hi-tech group that meets monthly in the Tel Aviv area, when I’m feeling too lazy to hoof it over from Jerusalem. But I haven’t seen the technology used for a wedding.

The way it worked was a bit funky: one of the wedding guests had set up a small laptop with a built in camera and microphone facing the chuppah. When he wanted to pan around the crowd, he picked up the whole laptop and did a 360.

Since he had plugged the laptop into a 3G wireless card (I guess the wedding hall’s WiFi wasn’t dependable), he was able to later walk around the dance floor, as well as grab shots of guests chowing down at each of the tables – although with that brick of a broadcast unit, he wasn’t quite as nimble as a wedding photographer.

This isn’t state-of-the-art yet: the sound was muddled and the video not up to TV network quality (or even watered down YouTube, for that matter), but it’s still a great idea, not just for family that can’t make it from overseas but local guests for whom a time conflict may preclude in-person attendance.

And the coolest part: the video is still online. So even guests who were there can catch a glimpse of themselves doing the chicken dance.

If you want to view some of Sammie & Isaac’s wedding, here’s the link.

This piece appeared originally on the Israelity blog.

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My Day with the iPad

by Brian Blum on June 30, 2010

in Media,Products

Totally drool-worthy

Last week, I hired a team to design and build a cool new iPad app for me (more on that in the coming weeks). The problem was that, at the time, I’d never actually held or used an iPad. So I was truly delighted when my friend Mitch Simon, who runs a successful coaching business in San Diego and was visiting us over the weekend, offered to leave his iPad with me for a day while he went out to tour the country.

Here, then, are ten comments from my day with the iPad.

1. First of all, it’s totally drool-worthy. I don’t know why, but when you pick it up and start to play with it, you immediately fall in love. Especially kids. I had a gaggle of children, ages 13 and under, begging to touch it, swipe it, shake it and turn it around so the screen reformats this way and that. I wanted it for business reasons; they were all about the fun. And Steve Jobs is right: it really is the best way to interact with the web.

2. I can touch type on it. Unlike the iPhone, where I’m all thumbs (literally), the virtual keyboard on the iPad in landscape mode is just big enough to let me type normally. That makes the iPad an ideal device to take to a lecture or conference. I found Apple’s Pages word processing program easy-to-use and intuitive (if not as powerful as Word on my Mac). Add in the long-life battery and the iPad is, as some controversial pundits have already claimed, a NetBook killer. And for all the naysayers who say you need to “feel” the click of a real keyboard, I say – get over it. You will get used to it.

3. Typing on the iPad has one big disadvantage over a laptop: unless you’ve attached an external keyboard, the iPad has to lie flat on a table or desk. That makes it hard to fully take advantage of the benefit of the screen – it’s angled away from you. It works OK if you have your feet on the couch, but didn’t your mother teach you never to do that?

4. As print newspapers begin to be phased out, reading the paper over breakfast is something the iPad will be great at. Although I’m not a regular reader of USA Today, the app version is superb and immediately intuitive. The fonts were big enough for even my middle-aged eyes. One disadvantage: if your fingers get dirty or sticky (eating pancakes or anything with syrup), that’s going to muck up your screen much more than a smudge on a printed paper.

5. It’s still too heavy for reading in bed. I want a device that’s as light as a paperback that I can hold in one hand (you know, like a Kindle). The iPad is somewhere between that and a hard cover book. But otherwise, the screen is brilliant and some of the tricks – like highlighting text and taking notes – are really helpful. And I know it’s just a “gimmick,” but the animation for flipping the pages really is fun

6. Despite the weight in bed, walking around with the iPad is a pleasure. My friend Mitch put his iPad in a leather case and it feels like one of those “old fashioned” diary books that I used to carry so long ago. Think of it as a slightly hefty yellow note pad. I found myself bringing the iPad everywhere with me.

7. The bathroom test – come on, you know at some point you’re going to want (or need) to hold the iPad while on the toilet instead of a newspaper or book. So, to be comprehensive, I gave it a spin. Here it works better than reading a book in bed: I don’t mind using both hands to hold it and it’s great having a variety of reading material in case your stay in the washroom is, um, a bit lengthy.

The kids can't get enough

The kids can't get enough

8. Pictures look fantastic on the iPad – so much so that I can’t imagine ever printing out photos and placing them in an album again. Before the iPad, it was a bit awkward having to pull out a laptop or ask friends and family to crowd around my desktop screen to see snapshots from our latest vacation. The iPad takes it to the couch. And it’s a whole lot more convenient than carting over 17 albums worth of photos (of course, digitizing all those albums will be a major undertaking).

9. Ditto for video – it’s like having one of those dedicated DVD players they used to give out in business class in airplanes before the built-in TVs came out – except a whole lot smaller. And it’s just big enough to share – at least a couple people at once (I wouldn’t try to watch Date Night on an iPad with the gang).

10. Biggest pet peeve – no front facing camera. Come on Apple, we know you’re just holding back until next year so you can generate more sales, but I want to be able to video Skype or FaceTime with my family when I’m on the road (or in bed – what is it that makes me want to snuggle up with the iPad). This may be the killer app…why do we have to wait?

So, did I add anything new to the discussion? What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

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Great Deals or Hidden Scam?

by Brian Blum on February 21, 2010

in Entrepreneurs,Media,Products,Startups

Free Israel logo 2The courts have ruled that the service is legal, but it still leaves a muddled taste in my mouth. I’m talking about Free.co.il, a popular Israeli auction site that works more like the Lotto than eBay.

You can’t help but be drawn in by Free.co.il’s home page which promises a Sony Playstation for NIS 99 ($26), a MacBook Air for NIS 299 ($79), and even a brand new Mazda 3 for a steal at only NIS 899 ($237). Who wouldn’t want to play with deals like these?

At first, it would be hard to distinguish Free.co.il from a traditional eBay-style auction site: you place your bids on items for sale and the highest bidder within the auction’s time frame wins. Unlike eBay, though, you have to pay for your bids. The cost of each bid varies; for the MacBook, it’s NIS 20 (about $5). It’s higher for bigger ticket items.

So, let’s say you bid 20 times to win that MacBook. You’ll pay NIS 20 x 20 or NIS 400 ($105). Then you pay the price of the unit, plus shipping of NIS 75 ($20) – written in tiny letters on a separate page you have to click to see. Your total cost: NIS 774 ($206). That’s still way less than the retail price of NIS 8,899 ($2,400) at Apple’s Tel Aviv outlet, but it’s not the NIS 299 that was initially advertised.

And what if you don’t win? Then you lose the NIS 400 entirely. That’s how Free.co.il can offer such low prices.

Still, if you place your bids right (and there is a whole section on “bidding strategies” on the site), and you’re willing to stick with it and spend hours aggressively placing last minute bets, you will win eventually (hopefully for an item you actually want). So, even if you wind up spending NIS 2,000 bidding on several items before winning one that’s valued at NIS 10,000, you’re still getting the product at an 80% discount.

There’s one other trick Free.co.il has up its digital sleeve. If two people bid the same amount, both bids are canceled. That means that the highest “unique” bid wins. You can see who’s placing what bids, their initials and even where they live, but not the amount they’re spending. So you never really know if your bid is being burned or not.

Free.co.il is entirely in Hebrew, but there’s a thriving market of overseas competitors. Is this a good business? Investors seem to think so. One of Free.co.il’s rivals, Swoopo, has raised an astonishing $14 million. Another – BigDeal – has a $4 million war chest and some Silicon Valley luminaries at the helm.

It’s certainly compelling – who wouldn’t want an iPhone at a tenth of the retail price – though I don’t think I’d have the stomach for it (I usually chicken out and click the “Buy it Now” button on eBay). And it peeves me that Free.co.il buries those hefty shipping fees in hard-to-find small print – it makes me wonder what else are they hiding.

But if you’re willing to play by the rules, and you enjoy the thrill of the game, Free.co.il could be the 21st century version of “The Price is Right.” All we need now is our own Israeli version of Bob Barker.

This article originally appeared on the Israelity blog.

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Kids Consuming 11 Hours of Media a Day

January 21, 2010

A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation confirms what most parents already know: that our kids are literally tethered to the Internet or other means of consuming media the better part of the day. The report, which has been the talk of the blogosphere since it was released yesterday, found that children and young […]

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