Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Of Sharks and Men

I've been a PADI certified scuba diver since 1991 and just recently obtained my advanced diver certification.  I've dived over 100 times, always in the ocean, and, of course, every diver is fascinated by, if not afraid of, shark encounters.  We've all read about the shark feeding programs that have developed at dive sites around the world, from Cape Town to Honduras– and there is plenty of controversy about whether sharks should be fed by humans– especially in close proximity of divers.

I went on my first shark feeding dive last week in Fiji in the Yasawa Islands.  

The dive was arranged by the Coral View dive center, which is a professionally run operation, and I personally felt very safe throughout the dive.  At a depth of 60 feet, the divers were positioned about 20 feet away from where the sharks were fed, with the ocean current and swell surge flowing in a direction away from the divers.  A strong metal cable running about 20 feet in length set the diver perimeter beyond which we were not allowed to pass.

Upon returning from my trip, I looked up some shark diving information on the web and found a couple of interesting sites including one that describes various types of shark feeding techniques— different from the one shown at right on our dive.


I also found a pretty interesting video on YouTube from a shark dive in Roatan, Honduras.  This video is a good example of what I believe is unsafe diver positioning– frankly this video, while very beautiful to watch, feels like an accident waiting to happen.  Judge for yourself…

Beijing Olympics Journal: I Have Michael Phelps’ T-Shirt


When Michael Phelps won the Olympic Gold medal for the Men’s 200m Butterfly earlier this week, I was excited to be there as a witness to part of his record breaking eight Gold medal run in Beijing. Little did I know that I would bring an historic piece of Michael Phelps’ wardrobe back to San Francisco with me.


I was sitting in the second row at the left of the pool, near the medal ceremony podiums, and Phelps was carrying a red shirt balled up in a knot after he received his medal and began the ceremonial walk in front of the crowd to show off the medals.


At his first stop, he paused to throw the shirt into the crowd– directly into my right hand for a one-handed catch. “Team Levensohn” pictured below with my new shirt– I will not wear it again– it is going into the Levensohn Olympic Memorabilia Gallery. This was certainly the highlight of my Olympics!



Why I Bought a Smart Fortwo and Sold My Mini Cooper



This past weekend the Sunday New York Times reviewed and generally panned the U.S. introduction of the Smart car’s Smart Fortwo. Lawrence Ulrich, the reporter, asserted that you would be better off buying a Honda Fit or a Nissan Versa, (he forgot to mention the Toyota Yaris). He also extolled the virtues of the Mini Cooper (one of which I have owned for over three years) relative to the Smart Fortwo.

Why? In short, for $15,000 all-in, you can get the same basic mileage, more passenger and storage room, and not be driving a 70 horsepower 3 cylinder stylized excuse for a riding lawnmower which takes 14 seconds to go 0-60 on the highway and is plagued by wind noise at high speeds.

Let me make the use case for the SmartCar.

First, do not take it on the highway. Second, do not attempt to go 60 miles per hour in it, even though you could. Third, none of the cars mentioned above can park in challenging, space constrained urban environments the way the Smart Fortwo can. Fourth, the other cars are not stylish or visually appealing—in fact they are visually disappointing. Fifth, I am selling my Mini Cooper because it gets 14.9 miles per gallon in the city, and I never drive it on the highway. Sixth, I am not getting a Prius because I live in a city where parking is difficult and the Prius, in addition to also being stylistically unappealing to my taste, has no parking advantage. [Remember, the Mini Cooper has the parking mojo and the looks but drinks gas like a BMW M5 in the city….]

Most important for my use case—I live in San Francisco, which makes all of the above very important.
I completely agree with the New York Times that the Smart car is contra-indicated if you are switching between the city and the highway, and most people are not able to switch cars depending on where they are going.

The Smart Fortwo gets 33 miles per gallon in the city, more than twice the mileage of my soon-to-be-history Mini Cooper. I will commute to my office and do all of my city driving in the Smart Fortwo. When I go to Marin or San Jose, I will drive a different vehicle built for the highway.

Result: I will reduce my gas consumption by 50%. My use case isn’t everyone’s, but if we all find ways to do our part, we could collectively be amazed at what happens. When it comes to energy conservation, every little bit does count!

Memo To United Airlines Management— Don’t Forget Who’s The Customer

My business partner and I landed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport at High Noon today, having awakened far too early for a Sunday, Mother’s Day to boot. We were en route to Rochester, New York, to kick off a week of East Coast business meetings.

With raindrops battering the airplane windows as we approached the gate, we learned that a massive storm system had forced the cancellation of many United flights into in out of Chicago, including our connection to Rochester.

We entered the terminal and saw a line of at least five hundred people trying to re-book their connecting flights—the wait for the “rapid, self-service kiosks” made us wish for unconsciousness. A large dose of good luck and membership in the Red Carpet Club succeeded in getting us re-booked onto a flight to Buffalo which left in 45 minutes, and both of us were upgraded to First Class… As we waited to board, an announcement was made that the First Class cabin had checked in full and that the ten other passengers waiting to upgrade would have to fly coach. We were lucky, indeed.

But that’s not the punch line to this story.

We were the first two passengers to board the 737 and, to our surprise, five of the eight first class seats were already occupied—by United employees. They had even completely filled the overhead bins with their bags, and I had to politely ask for one of the dead-heading flight attendants to move her bag into coach so that I could keep my own bag with me. I even offered to carry her bag to do it!

The flight was 100% full. At least 1,000 paying customers of United Airlines were massively inconvenienced due to cancelled flights throughout UAL’s Chicago hub. There is no doubt that other passengers on Flight 1142 to Buffalo had been re-routed onto this flight. Did United have an opportunity to build goodwill with five more of their loyal customers by moving the extremely unhappy paying passengers up front and having the employees fly coach to Buffalo? Yes.

But that would be another airline in another world and another time. And this blog is about the real world, where airlines, companies that used to be in the customer satisfaction business around circa 1975, no longer consider the lasting impact on every passenger who will not forget the image of five employees hogging 63% of the First Class cabin on Mother’s Day during a massive disruption of service to paying customers.

And I’m one of the lucky minority who got to ride up front…


Shark Tales– and A Question

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Assume that you are not in immediate danger in either scenario described below, then consider the implications of each:

SCENARIO A:  You are scuba diving at 60 feet and have 30 minutes of air left in your tank before it’s time to go up for your safety stop.  You are 15 minutes into a 45 minute dive.  A white-tip reef shark approaches you (and your buddy).  You are feeling calm, but you do have to eventually go up to the surface.  You have no weapons. The shark does not leave.  It slowly circles you at a distance that feels OK, but…

SCENARIO B: You are snorkeling above a reef in about 30 feet of water.  Coral formations are variable.  Your boat is 30 yards away.  Swimming to shore is not an option due to the coral that surrounds you.  A pair of grey reef sharks pass you by, then turn around and stay within 30 yards of you.  You are armed with a rusty bolt of a spear gun and a rubber hose slingshot to propel it.

If the sharks get aggressive, are you safer as a snorkeler or as a scuba diver?

In my view, since I recently experienced both scenarios on the same day, I felt less nervous as a scuba diver because I mistakenly considered myself to be on a more equal footing with the sharks.  However, as I’ve considered this further, it strikes me that, if a close encounter at 60 feet did turn into more than a mutual look-see, the probability of equipment malfunction caused by user stress, a panic-induced emergency ascent, or other "limited-resources-under-water" type problems could put the scuba diver in dire straits.  Having said that, I can’t remember hearing of a scuba diver being attacked by sharks unless they were chumming the water and asking for trouble, whereas we always hear of surfer/snorkeler it-looked-like-a-tasty-seal attacks.

What do you pick as the safer place to be? On the surface in Scenario B or Down Under Pc290034 Pc280049 in Scenario A?




The Benefits of Being Disconnected

Dsc_0071 I started posting to this blog in January of 2005.  Today, with this post, I’ve posted 189 times.  In the interim, I’ve also become a podcaster on VC-InsideOut, and I am active on the Facebook and Linked-In social networks.  In some respects I am a power-user of the web because I am a venture capitalist specializing in information technology investing, but I also enjoy the medium of expression afforded by these tools that have truly created the endless open-ended conversation with the world that defines the social Internet. 

But there is such a thing as being over-connected on the web.  A symptom:  the gnawing sense of obligation that you might feel to keep your content fresh– especially the little things, like changing your blog and Facebook pictures, or endlessly thinking of something pithy to say on your Facebook status bar (or on Twitter).

I usually post more actively when I am on vacation, but this past week, I unplugged totally for the first time in too long. 

No email, no phone, no blogs, no keyboards, no laptop–  but I did have my digital camera.

Being in Fiji was a key ingredient to the mix, as were several good books and plenty of great conversations with fellow travellers.  One of the more unusual recurring themes on this trip was meeting a number of people from all over the world who had quit their jobs and were in various stages of taking a year off from the working world– having visited many countries and experienced life from a completely different perspective.  Most of these people were between 22 and 32 years old, and many had IT backgrounds.  Fiji can be very attractive if you are on a limited budget; maybe this concentration of checked-out global travelers was a function of the attractive and cost effective environment, but it still surprised me.

My week of electronic abstinence evolved into a mini-course in restoring perspective, in slowing down response time, and in generally re-charging my batteries for 2008.  I recommend periodic disconnection from the web for everyone.

Speaking of connectivity, I’m looking forward to CES!

Happy New Year!



International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Jerusalem in May 2008 Promotes Interfaith Collaboration and Coexistence

Poster1_2 My friend and college classmate, Mark Gluck, continues to promote inter-faith tolerance and cooperation in Israel through adult education.  In cooperation with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute for Advanced Studies, Mark has organized the second US-Israeli-Palestinian Brain Research Conference, which will be held next May in Jerusalem and at Al Quds University in the West Bank on the Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease.  Mark is a Professor of Neuroscience at Rutgers, and his efforts are bringing together students and academics from around the world for this important collaboration.  In my view, this is positive change, unlike the misguided academic boycott of Israel that a group of British professors continue to promote.  to contact Mark about the conference, email him at gluck

Local Outrage– We’ll Pay the Price for SF Oil Spill for Years

What used to be a normal day at Crissy Field–


Now ruined by a toxic oil spill on the water–


One of the great pleasures of living in San Francisco is the ability to enjoy the natural beauty and unique features of the San Francisco Bay.  When I first moved to San Francisco in 1990 I would windsurf regularly under the Golden Gate Bridge, launching from Crissy Field.  In 1993, I joined the South End Rowing Club (one of two local Polar Bear swimming clubs) and would actually swim in the Bay three to five times a week, immersing myself in the exhilarating waters of Aquatic Park for as long as thirty three minutes… 

More recently, I’ve been riding my bike down to the Golden Gate Bridge through the Presidio and taking advantage of the new cycling paths next to the superb wetlands restoration project at Crissy Field.  I often cross the Golden Gate on my bicycle and ride up into the Marin Headlands. But cyclists are depressed, windurfers are grounded, and nobody is swimming in the Bay after the collision of the Cosco Busan cargo ship into the Bay Bridge on Wednesday November 8th at 8:30 AM released 58,000 gallons of oil into the Bay. Click here for Sacramento Bee story.

Crissy Field is desolate and adorned only by oil spill cleanup booms; virtually all of our San Francisco Bay beaches are closed due to the disastrous oil spill that has befouled our Bay– and the spill now stretches out to sea 10 miles, threatening sensitive bird breeding grounds in the Farallon Islands.20071109_084901_oilspillbeaches1109

click on image to enlarge

We, the cyclists, swimmers, sailors, beach-loving families, and, most of all, the defenseless wildlife that are our national treasure, are going to be paying the price for this negligence for years.  It appears that emergency crews did not act in a timely manner to stem the damage– and the sad fact is that in 30 minutes, the bulk of the damage was done. 

The earth is already in trouble from climate change, and avoidable tragedies such as this one should only punctuate the need to plan ahead for the low probability, high loss events that can impact our lives and destroy the natural habitat that makes the Bay Area special.  It is a sad day for all of us. 

Young Adult American Jews Can Reverse a Trend of Indifference and Alienation by Visiting Israel

An increasingly large proportion of American Jews under the age of 35 is becoming increasingly indifferent to and alienated from Israel.  Why?  Primarily because these people have not visited Israel. 

According to a new white paper- Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel, by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “the erosion on Israel engagement has taken place over the entire age spectrum, from elderly, to upper-middle-aged, to lower-middle-aged, to young adult. … We see a pattern of shifting (declining) attachment to Israel stretching over 50 years, from those who are now 65 and older down to those in their 20s.”

Funded by the Jewish Identity Project of Reboot and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, this paper’s conclusions are based on a survey of 1,828 Jewish respondents between December 2006 and January 2007 and focuses on non-Orthodox respondents.
What does Jewish American alienation from Israel mean?  It means that the majority of American Jews under the age of 35 do not believe that the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy and do not talk about Israel to non-Jewish friends.  Over 40% of American Jews under the age of 35 and almost 40% of American Jews under the age of 50 describe their level of Israel attachment as Low.  60% of the respondents have never been to Israel, and only 15% have been more than once.  48% of respondents believe that there is either a moderate amount of anti-Semitism in the U.S. today; 38% believe that there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in the U.S. today (62% believe there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in Europe today).  More importantly, 47% believe that anti-Semitism will increase in the U.S. over the next several years (62% believe so in Europe).       

Among the paper’s most important observations, intermarriage has an important influence on the distancing of American Jews from Israel.  However “contrary to widely held beliefs, left-liberal political identity is not primarily responsible for driving down the Israel attachment scores among the non-Orthodox.  If left-liberal politics were influential, we should see significant differences between liberal-Democrats and conservative-Republicans.  The absence of such a pattern, and their inconsistent variations within age groups, run contrary to the assertion that political views are the prime source of disaffection from Israel.”

I am the son of a Holocaust survivor with a strong Jewish religious education, but I was largely indifferent to Israel for much of my life because I didn’t have the perspective that you gain from actually going there.

I first visited Israel in early 2002 and have now been there 11 times.  Going there has completely changed my perspective about the importance of the State of Israel.  Today I am actively involved in direct philanthropic initiatives in Israel that promote religious pluralism.  I care deeply for Israel while being highly sensitive to the country’s many faults and contradictions.  I care about preserving the Jewish State of Israel in the face of great challenges, and I respect the deeply passionate people who make the commitment to live in Israel, even though I may not share their social or political views.

If you are a Jew who is indifferent to or alienated from Israel, you should visit the country and see for yourself why it is the center of so much global controversy.  Don’t be a bystander in this developing story.  The Business Leadership Council of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation is leading a business professionals Mission to Israel next April 30—in my view, this is a great opportunity to gain a new perspective on Israel and on your Jewish identity.       

Maps of War: A Geographical Rendition of the History of Religion

To see a 90 second graphical map representation of the origin and spread of various religion across the world over the past 5,000 years, click here.