Adonis Diaries

Archive for the ‘professional articles’ Category

You have got to Ask for feedback: Feedback don’t come easily and without much specific prompting…

There was a time when the term feedback was associated with some kinds of “production process“.

Coming from an engineering background, particularly industrial and human factors engineering, feedback meant receiving the reactions of clients and customers in the usage of products, such as safe usage, easy manipulation, health consequences, quality of product, of processes…

Feedback has acquired a life of its own and expanded to mean “How do you perceive my behavior, and how do think people are judging me…?”

Thus, feedback in the workplace on how I control, manage, and connect with people, employees, clients…

When was the last time you received useful feedback?

When it was not too late to nurture and mentor this “good person” who is trying hard to communicate with you?

An angry person will vent his feelings, turn and bang the door…How much of a feedback you think you received?

Do you think receiving feedback from someone who is Not an expert in the field or didn’t work on the field can give use any useful feedback?

“How am I doing?” is not a great beginning: It doesn’t sound serious or honest.

Everyone who really craves excellence craves feedback.

You need to know how you’re doing and how to improve.

Honest feedback is rare. And you don’t receive feedback because you don’t ask.

The primary problem in feedback is the level of Honesty:

The higher your level in the hierarchy, the more likely people say what they’re expected to say, not what they believe. Honest feedback is rare.

Try full sentences for a change, like: (extracted from a short list by Dan Rockwell)

  1. What do you think I was trying to accomplish by the way I______? (Fill in the blank with an outcome, “Led the meeting,” Leader, manager, coach, spouse, etc.)
  2. What did I do that made you think I was ______? (Fill in the blank with their response to #1.)
  3. How could I improve what you think I’m trying to accomplish
  4. “How/where do you fit into what I’m trying to accomplish?” (Nathan, Thanks for giving me this powerful question.)
  5. How can I help you better fit in?

The feedback question that changes everything uses behaviors to identify what’s really going on.

It doesn’t begin with a list of job responsibilities.

How can leaders invite feedback?

What questions invite useful feedback?

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Your sense of smell controls what you spend and who you love

By Georgia Frances King 

Smell is the ugly stepchild of the sense family.

Sight gives us sunsets and Georgia O’Keefe. Sound gives us Brahms and Aretha Franklin. Touch gives us silk and hugs. Taste gives us butter and ripe tomatoes.

But what about smell? It doesn’t exist only to make us gag over subway scents or tempt us into a warm-breaded stupor. Flowers emit it to make them more attractive to pollinators. Rotting food might reek of it so we don’t eat it. And although scientists haven’t yet pinned down a human sex pheromone, many studies suggest smell influences who we want to climb in bed with.

Olivia Jezler studies the science and psychology that underpins our olfactory system.

For the past decade, she has worked with master perfumers, developed fragrances for luxury brands, researched olfactory experience at the SCHI lab at University of Sussex, and now is the CEO of Future of Smell, which works with brands and new technologies to design smellable concepts that bridge science and art.

In this interview, Jezler reveals the secret life of smell. Some topics covered include:

  • how marketers use our noses to sell to us
  • why “new car smell” is so pervasive
  • how indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air
  • the reason why luxury perfume is so expensive
  • why babies smell so damn good
  • how Plato and Aristotle poo-pooed our sense of smell

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: On a scientific level, why is smell such an evocative sense?

Olivia Jezler: Our sense of smell is rooted in the most primal part of our brain for survival. It’s not linked through the thalamus, which is where all other sensory information is integrated: It’s directly and immediately relayed to another area, the amygdala.

None of our other senses have this direct and intimate connection to the areas of the brain that process emotion, associative learning, and memory. (That why we don’t dream “smell”)

Why? Because the structure of this part of the brain—the limbic system—grew out of tissue that was first dedicated to processing the sense of smell. Our chemical senses were the first that emerged when we were single-cell organisms, because they would help us understand our surroundings, find food, and reproduce.

Still today, emotionally driven responses through our senses of taste and smell make an organism react appropriately to its environment, maximizing its chances for basic survival and reproduction.

Beauty products like lotions and perfumes obviously have their own smells. But what unexpected businesses use scent in their branding?

It’s common for airlines to have scents developed for them. Air travel is interesting because, as it’s high stress, you want to make people feel connected to your brand in a positive way.

For example, British Airways has diffusers in the bathrooms and a smell for their towels. That way you walk in and you can smell the “British Airways smell.”

It’s also very common in food. You can design food so that the smell evaporates in different ways. Nespresso capsules, for instance, are designed to create a lot of odor when you’re using one, so that you feel like you’re in a coffee shop.

I’m sure a lot of those make-at-home frozen pizza brands are designed to let out certain smells while they’re in the oven to feel more authentic, too.

That’s an example of the “enhancement of authenticity.” Another example might be when fake leather is made to smell like real leather instead of plastic.

So we got used to the smell of natural things, but then as production became industrialized, we now have to fabricate the illusion of naturalness back into the chemical and unnatural things?

Yes, that’s it. People will feel more comfortable and they’ll pay more for products that smell the way we imagine them to smell.

For example: “new car smell.” When Rolls Royce became more technologically advanced, they started using plastic instead of wood for some parts of the car—and for some reason, sales started going down. They asked people what was wrong, and they said it was because the car didn’t smell the same. It repelled people from the brand. So then they had to design that smell back into the car.

New car smell is therefore a thing, but not in the way we think. It is a mix of smells that emanate from the plastics and interiors of a car.

The cheaper the car, the stronger and more artificial it smells. German automakers have entire olfactory teams that sniff every single component that goes into the interior of the car with their nose and with machines.

The problem then is if one of these suppliers changes any element of their product composition without telling the automaker, it throws off the entire indoor odor of the car, which was carefully designed for safety, quality, and branding—just another added complexity to the myriad of challenges facing automotive supply chains!

Are these artificial smells bad for us?

Designed smells are not when they fulfill all regulatory requirements. This question touches on a key concern of mine: indoor air. Everybody talks about pollution. Like in San Francisco, a company called Aclima works with Google to map pollution levels block by block at different times of the day—but what about our workplaces? Our homes? People are much less aware of this.

We are all buying inexpensive furniture and carpets and things that are filled with chemicals, and we’re putting them in a closed environment with often no air filtration.

Then there are the old paints and varnishes that cover all the surfaces! Combine that with filters in old buildings that are rarely or never changed, and it gets awful.

When people use cleaning products in their home, it’s also putting a lot more chemicals into the house than before. (You should open your windows after you clean.)

In cities like New York, the indoor air is three times worse than outdoors.

We’re therefore inhaling all these fumes in our closed spaces. In cities like New York, we spend 90% of our time indoors and the air is three times worse than outdoors.

The World Health Organization says it’s one of the world’s greatest environmental health risks. There are a few start-ups working on consumer home appliances that help you monitor your indoor air, but I am still waiting to see the one that can integrate air monitoring with filtering and scenting.

Manufacturing smell seems to fall into two camps. The first is fabricating a smell when you’ve taken the authenticity out of the product. But then other brands simply enhance an existing smell. That’s not fake, but it still doesn’t seem honest.

Well, to me they seem like the same thing: Because they are both designed to enhance authenticity.

There’s an interesting Starbucks case related to smell experiences and profits.

In 2008 they introduced their breakfast menu, which included sandwiches that needed to be reheated. The smell of the sandwiches interfered with the coffee aroma so much that it completely altered the customer experience in store: It smelled of food rather than of coffee.

During that time, repeat customer visits declined as core coffee customers went elsewhere, and therefore sales at their stores also declined, and this impacted their stock. The sandwiches have since been redesigned to smell less when being reheated.

This is starting to feel a bit like propaganda or false advertising. Are there laws around this?

No, there aren’t laws for enhancing authenticity through smell. Maybe once people become more aware of these things, there will be. I think it’s hard at this point to quantify what is considered false advertising.

There aren’t even laws for copyrighting perfumes! This is a reason why everything on the market usually kind of smells the same: Basically you can just take a perfume that’s on the market and analyze it in a machine that can tell you its composition. It’s easily recreated, and there’s no law to protect the original creation. Music has copyright laws, fragrance does not.

That’s crazy. That’s intellectual property.

It is. As soon as there’s a blockbuster, every brand just goes, “We want one like that!” Let’s make a fragrance that smells exactly like that, then lets put it in the shampoo. Put it in the deodorant. Put it in this. Put it in that.

Well if the perfume smells the same and is made with the same ingredients, why do we pay so much more for designer perfumes?

High fashion isn’t going to make [luxury brands] money—it’s the perfumes and accessories.

What differs is the full complexity of the fragrance and how long it lasts. As for pricing, It’s very much the brand. Perfume is sold at premium for what it is—but what isn’t? Your Starbucks coffee, Nike shoes, designer handbags… There can be a difference in the quality of the ingredients, yeah, but if it’s owned by a luxury brand and you’re paying $350, then you’re paying for the brand. The margins are also really high: That’s why all fashion brands have a perfume as a way of making money. High fashion isn’t going to make them money—it’s the perfumes and accessories. They play a huge, huge role in the bottom line.

How do smell associations differ from culture to culture?

Because of what was culturally available—local ingredients, trade routes et cetera—countries had access to very specific ingredients that they then decided to use for specific purposes. Because life was lived very locally, these smells and their associations remained generation after generation. Now if we wanted to change them, it would not happen overnight; people are not being inundated with different smell associations the way they are with fashion and music. Once a scent is developed for a product in a certain market, the cultural associations of the scent of “beauty,” “well-being,” or “clean” stick around. The fact that smells can’t yet transmit through the internet means that scent associations also keep pretty local.

For example, multinational companies want to develop specific fragrances and storylines for the Brazilian market. Brazilian people shower 3.5 times a day. If somebody showers that much, then scent becomes really important. When they get out of the shower, especially in the northeast of Brazil, they splash on a scented water—it’s often lavender water, which is also part of a holy ritual to clean a famous church, so it has positive cultural connotations. Companies want to understand what role each ingredient already plays in that person’s life so that they can use it with a “caring” or “refreshing” claim, like the lavender water.

Lavender is an interesting one. In the US, lavender is more of a floral composition versus true lavender. People like the “relaxing lavender” claim, but Americans don’t actually like the smell of real lavender. On the other hand, in Europe and Brazil, when it says “lavender” on the packaging, it will smell like the true lavender from the fields; in Brazil, lavender isn’t relaxing—it’s invigorating!

In the UK, florals are mostly used in perfumes, especially rose, which is tied to tradition. Yet in the US, a rose perfume is considered quite old-fashioned—you rarely smell it on the subway, whereas the London Tube smells like a rose garden. In Brazil, however, florals are used for floor and toilet cleaners; the smell of white flowers like jasmine, gardenia, and tuberose are considered extremely old-fashioned and unrelatable. However, in Europe and North America, these very expensive ingredients are a sign of femininity and luxury.

Traditional Chinese medicine influences the market in China: Their smells are a bit more herbal or medicinal because those ingredients are associated with health and well-being. You see that in India with Ayurvedic medicine as well. By comparison, in the US, the smell of health and cleanliness is the smell of Tide detergent.

Are there smells we can all agree on biologically, no matter where we’re from, that smell either good or bad?

Yes: Body fluids, disease, and rotten foods are biological no-nos. Also, natural gas, which you can smell in your kitchen if you leave the gas on by mistake, is in reality odorless: A harmless chemical is added to give gas a distinctive malodor that is often describes as rotten eggs—and therefore act as a warning!

The smell of babies, on the other hand? Everybody loves the smell of babies: It’s the next generation.

Do you wear perfume yourself?

I wear tons of perfume. However, if I’m working in a fragrance house or a place where I smell fragrances all the time, I don’t wear perfume, because it then becomes difficult to smell what is being created around me. There is also a necessity for “clean skin” to test fragrances on—one without any scented lotions or fragrances.

Why does perfume smell different on different people? Is it because it reacts differently with our skin, or is it because of the lotions and fabric softeners or whatever other smells we douse ourselves in?

Cancers and diabetes can be identified through body odor.

Generally, it’s our DNA. But there are different layers to how we smell. Of course, the first layer is based on the smells we put on: soaps and deodorants and whatever we use. Then there’s our diet, hydration level, and general health. An exciting development in the medical world is in diagnostics: Depending upon if we’re sick or not, we smell different.

Cancers and diabetes can be identified through body odor, for instance. Then on the most basic level, our body odor is linked to the “major histocompatability complex” (MHC), which is a part of the genome linked to our immune system. It is extremely unique and a better identifier than a retinal scan because it is virtually impossible to replicate.

Why don’t we care more about smell?

The position that our sense of smell holds is rooted in the foundation of Western thought, which stems from the ancient Greeks. Plato assigned the sense of sight as the foundation for philosophy, and Aristotle provided a clear hierarchy where he considered sight and hearing nobler in comparison to touch, taste, and smell.

Both philosophers placed the sense of smell at the bottom of their hierarchy; logic and reason could be seen and heard, but not smelt. The Enlightenment philosophers and the Industrial Revolution did not help, either, as the stenches that emerged at that time due to terrible living conditions without sewage systems reminded us of where we came from, not where we were headed. Smell was not considered something of beauty nor a discipline worth studying.

It’s also a bit too real and too closely tied to our evolutionary past. We are disconnected from this part of ourselves, so of course we don’t feel like it is something worth talking about. As society becomes more emotionally aware, I do think smell will gain a new role in our daily lives.

This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

Success is harder to handle than failure.

Do you tend to interject a “but” when boasting of a success story?

By Dan Rockwell?

I feel great, but…

I am doing fine, but…

We did great, but there’s more to do…

We’re doing great but we’re not there yet...

Things are going smoothly, but we don’t want to get comfortable…

Too much “not there yet” and you discourage the team. Too much celebrating success and everyone thinks you’ve arrived.

Do you think that if you say “but” after forward movement, you’re a dark cloud, a dissatisfied downer?

It’s like a dripping faucet. You discourage. You don’t motivate.

“It’s good to have a battle, it gives you a goal.” Mike Howard, Chief Security Officer at Microsoft

When things are going well “successful leaders” always think what’s next; they always press forward.

Jim Collins said: “Hi performing leaders are paranoid performers. They’re always asking, ‘What if,’ and then preparing for it. They think about and anticipate the day of ‘bad things.”

We’re asking ourselves, “What haven’t we thought of”?

“Be proud of success, BUT…”

The two-sided challenge of leadership is dissatisfaction during success and honoring progress when you fall short.

Positive work environments are never an accident. They’re created by leaders who think and act with positive attitudes.

The function of success is not comfort but fire.

Give it a break. Bring up your “but” tomorrow.

Don’t let your “but” diminish your success.

Help everyone enjoy hard earned successes; enjoy them yourself.

Pick your “buts” carefully: They have no functions in explaining a success story…

Wonder why I hate “Buts” in sentences. I substitute And. And I am not a success story… Just an intuition of the harmful reactions we feel after we hear a “But”… Too boring this But…

How do you navigate the tension between celebrating success and the need to reach higher?

Note: Inspired by one of the posts of Dan Rockwell , with alteration and rearrangement

How Israel and its partisans work to censor the Internet

By Alison Weir 

How Israel and its partisans work to censor the Internet

YouTube’s email claimed we had somehow violated their long list of guidelines but did not tell us which one, or how. It simply stated:

“Your video ‘Ahmad Nasser Jarrar’ was flagged for review. Upon review, we’ve determined that it violates our guidelines. We’ve removed it from YouTube and assigned a Community Guidelines strike, or temporary penalty, to your account.”

Such a penalty is not public and does not terminate the channel.

Three days later, before we’d even had a chance to appeal this strike, YouTube suddenly took down our entire channel. This was done with no additional warnings or explanation.

This violated YouTube’s published policies.

YouTube policies say there is a “three-strike” system by which it warns people of alleged violations three times before terminating a channel. If a channel is eventually terminated, the policies state that YouTube will send an email “detailing the reason for the suspension.”

None of this happened in our case.

We submitted appeals on YouTube’s online form, but received no response.

Attempts to find a phone number for YouTube and/or email addresses by which we could communicate with a human being were futile.

YouTube’s power to shut down content without explanation whenever it chooses was acutely apparent.

While there are other excellent video hosting sites, YouTube is the largest one, with nearly ten times more views than its closest competitors.

It is therefore enormously powerful in shaping which information is available to the public–and which is not.

We spent days working to upload our videos elsewhere, update links to the videos, etc.

Finally, having received no response or even acknowledgment of our appeal from YouTube, we decided to write an article about the situation.

We emailed YouTube’s press department a list of questions about its process. We have yet to receive any answers.

Finally that evening we received an email with good news:

“After a review of your account, we have confirmed that your YouTube account is Not in violation of our Terms of Service. As such, we have un-suspended your account. This means your account is once again active and operational.”

Our channel was visible once more. And YouTube had now officially confirmed that our content doesn’t violate its guidelines.

Ultimately, the YouTube system seems to have worked, in our case.

Inappropriate censorship was overruled, perhaps by saner or less biased heads. In fact, we felt that there might at least be one positive result of the situation—additional YouTube employees had viewed our videos and perhaps learned much about Israel-Palestine they had not previously known.

But the whole experience was a wakeup call that YouTube can censor information critical of powerful parties at any time, with no explanation or accountability.

Israeli soldiers paid to “Tweet, Share, Like and more”

Israel and partisans of Israel have long had a significant presence on the Internet, working to promote the Israel narrative and block facts about Palestine, the Israel lobby, and other subject matter they wish covered up.

Opinionated proponents of Israel post comments, flag content, accuse critics of “antisemitism,” and disseminate misinformation about Palestine and Palestine solidarity activists. Many of these actions are by individuals acting alone who work independently, voluntarily, and relentlessly.

In addition to these, however, a number of orchestrated, often well-funded projects sponsored by the Israeli government and others have come to light. These projects work to place pro-Israel content throughout the Internet, and to remove information Israel doesn’t wish people to know.

One such Israeli project targeting the Internet came to light when it was lauded in an article by Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news organization headquartered in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

The report described a new project by Israel’s “New Media desk” that focused on YouTube and other social media sites. The article reported that Israeli soldiers were being employed to “Tweet, Share, Like and more.”

The article noted, “It is well known nowadays that what happens on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has great influence on events as they occur on the ground. The Internet, too, is a battleground.” It was “comforting,” the article stated, to learn that the IDF was employing soldiers whose job was specifically to do battle on it.

Israeli students paid to promote Israel on social media

Screen shot from a video about student program to spread pro-Israel content on the Internet and social media.

Another project to do battle on the Internet was initiated in 2011 by the 300,000-strong National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS). The goal was “to deepen and expand hasbara [state propaganda] activities of students in the State of Israel.”

Under this program, Israeli students are paid $2,000 to work five hours per week to “lead the battle against hostile websites.”

An announcement for the program (translated here into English) noted that “many students in Israel master the Internet and are proficient at using the Internet and social networking and various sites and are required to write and express themselves in English.” Students can work from the comfort of their own homes, points out the announcement.

“Students work in four teams: Content, Wikipedia, Monitoring and New Media,” according to the program description.

It details the responsibilities for each team:

The content team is responsible for creating original content in a news format.

The monitoring team is responsible for “monitoring efforts while reporting and removing anti-Semitic [sic] content from social networks in a variety of languages.” (The program conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism; see below.)

The New Media team is responsible for social media channels, “including Facebook accounts in English, French and Portuguese, Twitter, YouTube channels, and so on.”

The Wikipedia team is “responsible for writing new entries and translating them into languages that operate in the program, updating the values of current and relevant information, tracking and preventing bias in the program’s areas of activity.”

This program sometimes claims it is working against antisemitism, but it conflates antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel. This is in line with an Israel-backed initiative to legally define “antisemitism” to include discussing negative facts about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.

Campaign to infiltrate Wikipedia

The pro-Israel organization CAMERA infiltrated Wikipedia for a time. (Illustration by Electronic Intifada.)

Several years ago, another project came to light that targeted Wikipedia. While manipulating Wikipedia entries doesn’t directly impact YouTube, it provides a window into some of these efforts to manipulate online content.

A 2008 exposé in the Electronic Intifada revealed: “A pro-Israel pressure group is orchestrating a secret, long-term campaign to infiltrate the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia.”

While it is common and appropriate for individuals to edit Wikipedia entries to add factual information and remove inaccurate statements, this project was the antithesis of such editing.

As EI, reported, its purpose was “to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these changes go either undetected or unchallenged.”

Author Ali Abunimah reported that a source had provided EI with a series of emails from members and associates of the pro-Israel group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) that showed the group “was engaged in what one activist termed a ‘war’ on Wikipedia.”

CAMERA Senior Research Analyst Gilead Ini organized a project to infiltrate Wikipedia.

CAMERA called for volunteers to secretly work on editing Wikipedia entries. It emphasized the importance of keeping the project secret. Volunteers were schooled in ways to elude detection. After they signed up as editors, they were to “avoid editing Israel-related articles for a short period of time.”

They were also told to “avoid, for obvious reasons, picking a username that marks you as pro-Israel, or that lets people know your real name.”

CAMERA also warned them: “Don’t forget to always log inIf you make changes while not logged in, Wikipedia will record your computer’s IP address.”

A Wikipedia editor known as Zeq helped in the effort, telling volunteers: “Edit articles at random, make friends not enemies—we will need them later on. This is a marathon not a sprint.”

He emphasized the importance of secrecy: “You don’t want to be precived [sic] as a ‘CAMERA’ defender’ on wikipedia that is for sure.”

Zeq recommended that they work with and learn from an independent, pro-Israel Wikipedia editor known as Jayjg, but directed them to keep the project secret even from him.

When this all came to light, Wikipedia took measures against such manipulation of its system and the CAMERA program may have ended.

If it did, others stepped into the breach. In 2010 two Israeli groups began offering a course in “Zionist editing” of Wikipedia entries.

The aim was “to make sure that information in the online encyclopedia reflects the worldview of Zionist groups.” A course organizer explained that the use of the word “occupied” in Wikipedia entries “was just the kind of problem she hoped a new team of editors could help fix.”

Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported: “The organizers’ aim was twofold: to affect Israeli public opinion by having people who share their ideological viewpoint take part in writing and editing for the Hebrew version, and to write in English so Israel’s image can be bolstered abroad.”

There was to be a prize for the “Best Zionist Editor”—the person who over the next four years incorporated the most “Zionist” changes in the encyclopedia. The winner would receive a trip in a hot-air balloon over Israel.

High tech millionaire Naftali Bennett, a right-wing minister close to the settler movement, describes the program:

The UK Guardian reports: “One Jerusalem-based Wikipedia editor, who doesn’t want to be named, said that publicising the initiative might not be such a good idea. ‘Going public in the past has had a bad effect,’ she says. ‘There is a war going on and unfortunately the way to fight it has to be underground.’”

Again in 2013, there was evidence of pro-Israel tampering with Wikipedia. Israel’s Ha’aretz reported that a social-media employee of NGO Monitor edited articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an allegedly biased manner. “Draiman concealed the facts that he was an employee of NGO Monitor, often described as a right-wing group, and that he was using a second username, which is forbidden under Wikipedia’s rules,” according to the paper.

Such actions have had an impact. A website critical of Wikipedia said in 2014 that there were “almost ten times as many articles about murdered Israeli children as there are articles about murdered Palestinian children,” even though at least 10 times more Palestinian children had been killed.

The website also pointed out: “While editors like Zeq (TCL) and CltFn (TCL) may get banned in the end, the articles they started remain.”

If YouTube reviewers and others use Wikipedia in their determination about whether content should be removed or not, these efforts to censor Wikipedia could adversely affect their decisions.

Social Media Missions for Israel

Title image from Forward article about the Act.IL campaign.

In 2017 yet another project to target Internet platforms was launched. Known as Act.il, the project uses a software application that “leverages the power of communities to support Israel through organized online activity.”

The software is a joint venture of three groups: Israel’s IDC University; the Israeli American Council, which works to “organize and activate” the half million Israeli-Americans who live in the U.S.; and another American group called the Maccabee Task Force, created to combat the international boycott of Israel, which it terms “an anti-Semitic movement.” Maccabee says it is “laser focused on one core mission—to ensure that those who seek to delegitimize Israel and demonize the Jewish people are confronted, combatted and defeated.”

Image from Maccabee end of year report.

In addition, the project is supported by Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry and Israel’s intelligence community. Its CEO is an eight-year veteran of Israeli army intelligence.

Israel’s Jerusalem Post reports that Act.IL is “a wide-ranging grassroots campaign app that lets individuals combat BDS in the palm of their hand” or, as we will see, from public computers in the US.

“Act.IL is more than just an app,” the Post article explains. “It is a campaign that taps into the collective knowledge of IDC students who together speak 35 languages, hail from 86 countries and have connections to the pro-Israel community all over the world.”

The article claims: “A platform like Act.IL offers world Jewry an opportunity to fight for one thing the majority can rally behind: Israel.” (This ignores the fact that there are many Jewish individuals who oppose Israeli policies.)

Israel partisans around the world download the app, and then “in this virtual situation room of experts, they detect instances where Israel is being assailed online and they program the app to find missions that can be carried out with a push of a button.”

An organizer notes: “When you work together, with the same goals and values, you can be incredibly powerful in the social media landscape.”

Some missions ask users to report videos. Israeli government officials say that the Act.il app “is more effective than official government requests at getting those videos removed from online platforms.”

The project is led by former Israeli intelligence officers and has close ties to American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Another funder is the Paul R. Singer Foundation, funded by the Republican hedge fund billionaire.

The Forward calls Act.IL a new entry into the “online propaganda war” that “has thousands of mostly U.S.-based volunteers who can be directed from Israel into a social media swarm.”

According to the Forward, “Its work so far offers a startling glimpse of how it could shape the online conversations about Israel without ever showing its hand.”

The Forward reports: “Act.il says that its app has 12,000 sign-ups so far, and 6,000 regular users. The users are located all over the world, though the majority of them appear to be in the United States.

Users get ‘points’ for completed missions; top-ranked users complete five or six missions a day. Top users win prizes: a congratulatory letter from a government minister, or a doll of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister.”

Photo of group that participated in Act.IL training

Act.IL’s CEO, a veteran Israeli army intelligence officer, said the Israeli military and its domestic intelligence service “‘request’ Act.il’s help in getting services like Facebook to remove specific videos that call for violence against Jews or Israelis.” This according to the Forward report.

The officer later tried to walk back his statement, “saying that the Shin Bet [intelligence service] and the army don’t request help on specific videos but are in regular informal contact with Act.il. He said that Act.il’s staff is largely made up of former Israeli intelligence officers.”

Teens in American JCCs carry out missions assigned from Israel

New Jersey “Media Room,” a project of IAC New Jersey in partnership with Act.IL.

The project recruits Jewish teens and adults and sometimes operates out of local Jewish community centers, the Forward says. The paper describes one example:

“The dozen or so Israelis sitting around a conference table at a Jewish community center in Tenafly, New Jersey, on a recent Wednesday night didn’t look like the leading edge of a new Israeli government-linked crowdsourced online propaganda campaign.

“Tapping on laptops, the group of high school students and adult mentors completed social media ‘missions’ assigned out of a headquarters in Herzliya, Israel.”

In addition to the Tenafly “media room” another operates in Boston in cooperation with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. There are also regular Act.il advocacy-training sessions at The Frisch School, a Jewish day school in Paramas, New Jersey. Other media rooms are reportedly in the works, with one in Manhattan, hosted by The Paul R. Singer Foundation, scheduled to open soon.

The Forward reports: “In November, the Boston media room created a mission for the app that asked users to email a Boston-area church to complain about a screening there of a documentary that is critical of Israel. The proposed text of the email likens the screening of the film to the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, and calls the film’s narrator, Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, a ‘well-known anti-Semite.’”

Photo of Boston Media Room published by Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, which states: “Media Room Ambassadors are students and adult mentors who are trained with the knowledge, skills, and tools to positively influence public discourse by developing pro-Israel social media campaigns.”

According to the Forward, Act.il also produces “pro-Israel web content that carries no logo. It distributes that content to other pro-Israel groups, including the Adelson-funded Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and The Israel Project, which push them out on their own social media feeds.”

The Forward predicts: “Initiatives in cyberspace seem likely to increase.”

Screenshot from video promoting the project, posted on the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston website.

Israeli media report that the Israeli military “has begun scouring Jewish communities abroad for young computer prodigies” to recruit for its ranks.

An Israeli official described the process: “Our first order of business is to search Jewish communities abroad for teens who could qualify, Our representatives will then travel to the communities and begin the screening process there.”

Israeli Government Ministry backs secret online campaigns

General Sima Vaknin-Gil told Israeli tech developers to “flood the Internet” with pro-Israel propaganda. As Israel’s Chief Censor, she said: ” “We censor information that is critical to our enemies, who have no capabilities like us, do not have a Jewish brain, and therefore our enemy relies to a large extent on open information…”

Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, which is behind this and similar projects, has mobilized substantial resources for online activities.

Israel’s Ynet news reports that the Ministry’s director “sees it as a war for all intents and purposes. ‘The delegitimization against the State of Israel can be curbed and contained through public diplomacy and soft tools,’ she says. ‘In order to win, however, we must use tricks and craftiness.’”

The director, General Sima Vaknin-Gil, told a forum of Israeli tech developers at a forum: “I want to create a community of fighters.” The objective is to “curb the activities of anti-Israel activists,” and “flood the Internet” with pro-Israel content.

An Israeli report in December stated that the ministry has acquired a budget of roughly $70 million to “stand at the forefront of the battle against delegitimization, adopting methods from the fields of intelligence and technology. There is a reason why ministry officials define it as ‘a war on consciousness terrorism.’” [‘Delegitimization’ is a common Israeli term for criticism of Israel. See here for a discussion of the term.]

Ha’aretz article reports: “The Strategic Affairs Ministry’s leaders see themselves as the heads of a commando unit, gathering and disseminating information about ‘supporters of the delegitimization of Israel’—and they prefer their actions be kept secret.”

The article reports that the Ministry includes a job role entitled “Senior official—new-media realm,” responsible for surveillance and activities “in the digital realm.”

This individual head is responsible for analyzing social media and formulating a social media campaign against sites and activists who are deemed a threat to Israel.

Among the job’s responsibilities are:

“Analysis of the world of social media, in terms of content, technology and network structure, emphasizing centers of gravity and focuses of influence, methods, messages, organizations, sites and key activists, studying their characteristics, areas, realms and key patterns of activities of the rival campaign and formulating a strategy for an awareness campaign against them in this realm and managing crises on social media. That is, surveilling of activities mainly in the digital arena.”

Officials at the ministry are charged with “construction and promotion of creative and suitable programs for new media.”

The unit works to keep its activities secret from the public. For example, a program to train young Israelis for activities on social media was exempted from publishing a public bid for funding. Similarly, the ministry’s special unit against delegitimization, “Hama’aracha” (The Battle), is excluded from Israel’s Freedom of Information Law.

The 29th floor of Tel Aviv’s Champion Tower is the nerve center of a 24-7 ‘war’ in which Israeli agents working behind the scenes advance U.S. legislation, torpedo events, organize counter-protests, & close bank accounts.. The Director says: ‘In order to win we must use tricks and craftiness.’

Its activities reportedly include a “24/7 operations room monitoring all the delegitimization activities against Israel: Protests, conferences, publications calling for an anti-Israel boycott and international bodies’ boycott initiatives. The operations room will transfer the information to the relevant people to provide a proper response to these activities, whether through a counter-protest or through moves to thwart the initiative behind the scenes.”

Other programs include a 22-million-shekel project to work among labor unions and professional associations abroad “to root out the ability of BDS entities to influence the unions,” and a 16-million-shekel program focused on student activities throughout the world.

Israel’s UNIT 8200

Photo from article about Unit 8200 on Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre website.

Another Israeli entity that plays a role in covert Internet activity is the Israeli military’s legendary high-tech spy branch, Unit 8200. This unit is composed of thousands of “cyber warriors” primarily 18 to 21 years of age; some even younger. A number of its graduates have gone on to top positions at tech companies operating in the U.S., such as Check Point Software (where the spouse of the Jewish Voice for Peace head is employed as a solutions architect).

In 2015 Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced plans “to establish a special command to combat anti-Israel incitement on social media.” The command would operate under the foreign ministry’s hasbara [propaganda] department and would especially recruit from graduates of Unit 8200.

An article in the Jewish Press about the new command reports that Unit 8200 “has developed a great reputation for effectiveness in intelligence gathering, including operating a massive global spy network. Several alumni of 8200 have gone on to establish leading Israeli IT companies, including Check Point, ICQ, Palo Alto Networks, NICE, AudioCodes, Gilat, Leadspace, EZchip, Onavo, Singular and CyberArk.”

Check Point Software headquarters in Tel Aviv. Founded by a former Unit 8200 member, it also has offices throughout the U.S. Israeli tech companies sometimes assist in online spying efforts.

Numerous Israeli tech companies, many of them headed by former military intelligence officers, assist in these online spying efforts, sometimes receiving Israeli government funding “for digital initiatives aimed at gathering intelligence on activist groups and countering their efforts.”

According to the ministry’s statement, among the Command’s activities is finding videos with inflammatory content and issuing complaints to the relevant websites.”

To be clear, this is an occupying military working covertly to achieve censorship of reporting on its atrocities.

YouTube & Google officials meet with Israeli Minister

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaking to the Israel Collaboration Network’s Israeli Women in Tech Group on August 25, 2016.

Major Internet companies have reportedly been cooperating in this effort.

In 2015 Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely announced that she had visited Silicon Valley and met with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Google’s Director of Public Policy (it is unclear whether this was was Jennifer Oztzistzki or Juniper Downs; Hotovely’s announcementreferred to “Jennifer Downs”).

“At the end of the meeting,” Israeli media reported, “it was agreed that Google would strengthen bilateral relations with the Foreign Ministry and build a collaborative work apparatus.”

Another Israeli news report about the meeting states: “…it was agreed that the companies would strengthen ties with the Foreign Ministry and build a regular mechanism of control to prevent the distribution of those incendiary materials on the network.”

Google, which owns YouTube, denied the Foreign Ministry’s report. The Ministry accordingly “clarified” its statement somewhat, but continued to say that Israeli officials would be in “regular contact with Google’s employees in Israel who deal with the problematic materials.”

Such officials often have close ties to Israel. For example, Facebook’s Head of Policy in Israel,Jordana Cutler, had previously been employed for many years by the Israeli government. (More about Facebook can be found here.)

The Linkedin page for Facebook’s Jordana Cutler

The meetings seem to have had a significant effect.

In 2016 Fortune magazine reported: “Facebook, Google, and YouTube are complying with up to 95% of Israeli requests to delete content that the government says incites Palestinian violence, Israel’s Justice Minister said on Monday.”

More recently, the Israeli Ministry of Justice said that its cyber unit handled 2,241 cases of online content and succeeded in getting 70 percent of it removed.

According to a 2017 report, Google, in its capacity as the operator of Youtube, announced that it was updating the steps it was already taking on this score.

Among other things, Google said it would increase the number of members of the “Trusted Flagger program,” which enables certain organizations and government agencies to report content. It also said it would “increase support for NGOs and organizations working to present a ‘corrective voice.’”

Given the record of infiltration and orchestrated activities described above—many financed by a combination of certain influential billionaires and the Israeli government itself—it’s hard to imagine that Israeli organizations and partisans are not thoroughly embedded in this program. In fact, one of the NGOs already working with YouTube as a “trusted flagger” is the Anti-Defamation League, whose mission includes ‘standing up for Israel.’

Anti-Defamation League celebrates Israel at 2017 New York City parade.

A leaked secret January 2017 ADL strategy paper detailed how to counter the pro-Palestine movement. Among its many strategies were some focused on the importance of efforts in cyber space.

The paper was produced in collaboration with the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, and included an endorsement by Sima Vaknin-Gil, who stated that “the correlation between the Ministry’s mode of operation and what comes out of this document is very high, and has already proven effective… ”

Strategy paper about how to counter the Palestine solidarity movement. (Full document posted here.)

The document’s executive summary noted: “Cyberspace, broadly defined, stands out as a crucially important arena (for monitoring and counter and pro-active strategies) which requires more resources and attention due to its current influence, rapid growth and growing complexity.”

The paper called for “a mix of policy advocacy and industry engagement with corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter in a manner consistent with the ADL Center for Technology and Society and its Anti-Cyberhate Working Group.”

An illustration in the ADL-Reut working paper on improving Israel advocacy. It noted: “While the pro-Israel network increasingly is active in this domain, much more can be done.”

The paper also recommended: “‘Bottom-up efforts’ of crowd-sourcing to enhance the adaptive capacity of the pro-Israel network.”

At the same time, it urged:

“Strengthening pro-Israel organizations that mobilize and coordinate a network of ‘nodes’ e.g. Jewish Community Public Affairs (JCPA) and its network of Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRCs) in the USA; Hillel, which is present in nearly five hundred locations in the U.S. and globally; the Israel Action Network (IAN) that reaches nearly 160 federations in the U.S.; or the Jewish Congress (WJC) that represents dozens of Jewish communities around the world.”

The detailed, 32-page document reported that in recent years “a massive investment of resources and talent” had been directed against the pro-Palestine movement.

One of the results, the paper said, was to create a “world-wide pro-Israel network.” It was this network that the report wished to mobilize. One of the paper’s concerns was that since Israel’s 2014  attack on Gaza “a growing number of Jews have become more critical of Israel.”

The document recommended a degree of stealth, noting: “high-visibility response by the pro-Israel side can be counterproductive.”

What this means

Nevertheless, despite all these forces arrayed against information about Palestine reaching the American public, our channel is back up on YouTube. In fact, we’ve just uploaded a new video:

This one is about the death of a nine-year-old boy. [Perhaps the Israeli government would consider this incitement to Palestinians to rebel against occupation; we see it as incitement to the world in general, and Americans in particular, to care.]

In other words, Israel’s efforts at censorship don’t always succeed.

But sometimes they do, and other YouTube users have not always been so fortunate. For example, YouTube has terminated several Palestinian news organizations.

One was the al-Quds network, which, according to a report in Middle East Eye, “relies on young reporters and volunteers using phones and other digital devices to cover local news across the Palestinian territories.” They would often report Israeli soldiers committing various human rights violations.

Its YouTube channel was terminated in 2011, and its editor says they had to “to create a new channel from scratch.” By 2017 its new channel had gained almost 10 million views before it was suddenly suspended without warning again last October. It now, however, appears to have a YouTube channel in operation.

According to the MEE report, YouTube also suspended the Filisten al-Youm TV channel last August, and in 2013, apparently following complaints by the Anti-Defamation League, YouTube closed down Iran’s PressTV channel. (A Press TV YouTube channel now also appears to be available again.)

Palestinian social media users risk even greater consequences.

The Israeli government has arrested Palestinians for videos, poems, and other posts it dislikes. A 2016 report estimated that “more than 150 arrests took place between October and February 2016 based on Facebook posts expressing opinions on the uprising. A recent video posted on social media led to the imprisonment of a 16 year old girl, her mother and cousin.

In addition, Palestinian access to social media is somewhat controlled by Israel. As a Huffington Post article reports, ”Palestinians’ digital rights and access to the Internet are compromised in very basic ways, because Israel controls the infrastructure and services of Palestinian telecommunication companies in the West Bank.”

While the situation has greatly improved in recent years – the Israeli government finally announced in 2016 that it would allow Palestinians in the West Bank to access 3G wireless networks, making this one of the last regions in the world with such access after years of Israeli restrictions – it is important to remember the enormous power Israel wields over this largely captive population.

While Israel is able to organize entire campaigns to filter and flood social media, its immense control over Palestinians impedes their access to the same media.

Given these facts, it is extremely important for people to search out information for themselves, go directly to our websites and others, subscribe to diverse email lists, and not rely on social media for information. [Please subscribe to our news posts here.]

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others are private companies. In the end, they have the power to censor information, and they periodically do so. For a few days, we felt acutely what that was like. If Facebook had joined the ban, as has happened with others, we would have been even more cut off from what is essentially today’s “public square.”

The Internet and social media give us far more access to information and tools for communication and activism than ever before, but they, too, can be controlled—and they are.

It is up to us, as always, to overcome.

#

Our videos are also being uploaded to Daily Motion, Vimeo, and BitChute, and many are already on ournews blog, Timeline, and main website, where all of them will eventually be available.


Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of “Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel.” 

The section on the ADL was expanded on March 9. The ADL-Reut is posted here.

“The most beautiful History of Man”

Apparently, we are not permitted to look at our ancestors, 100,000 years ago, with condescendence:

we are the same in nature, in heredity, in intelligence, in behavior, in mode of life, in our imaginary,…

We have the same identity and we didn’t change much from prehistorical mankind, before he moved up one step in the ladder toward settling down in urban centers (the neolitic phase, 10,000 years ago)

Note: “The most beautiful History of Man” is a French book, a collection of three interviews with Andre Langaney, Jean Clottes, Jean Guilaine, and Dominique Simonnet…

Note 2: https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/part-3-how-living-organisms-were-created%e2%80%9c-from-a-short-history-of-nearly-everything%e2%80%9d-by-bill-bryson/

Nice leaders finish last, if nice means agreeable. The sort of “Can’t we all get along?”

If all you do is agree, go home. You aren’t contributing.

Bullies aren’t leaders. Contrarian people are respectful and listen well.

By Dan Rockwell?

“There is a condition afflicting organizations that often goes undiagnosed because it is perceived as benign. In truth, it is corrosive.

I call it the ‘the disease of niceness.’” John Baldoni in, “The Leaders Pocket Guide.”

Nice leaders:

  1. Wrongly believe “getting along” is the goal. “Can’t we all get along?”. This statement is great if you love mediocrity.
  2. Can’t tolerate conflict. If you can’t tolerate conflict, you can’t lead. Successful leaders thrive in tense situations.
  3. Need to be liked.

Substantive contribution demands disagreement.

Contrarian leaders:

  1. Believe getting it done is the goal.
  2. Think tension and conflict are tools, Not distractions.
  3. Instigate conflict rather hiding from it. They stir the pot.

The scale:

On the scale of “nice to contrarian,” most of you fall on the nice side. You’ll get along just fine in many organizations. But, you’ll never be an exceptional leader if all you do is agree.

Exceptional leaders cross the line from agreeable to contrarian (as if this is a matter of a decision?)

10 ways to become contrarian:

  1. Keep smiling, for goodness sake.
  2. Reject the idea that anger and contrarian are the same thing. Don’t let anger be your only motivation to address tough issues.
  3. Ask tough questions and make challenging statements without threatening.
  4. Embrace politeness, always. (Thanks for this one John Baldoni.)
  5. Watch your body language. Maintain welcoming eye contact and open postures.
  6. Convince everyone you support them. Agree, affirm, and support, a lot. Contrarian leaders finish last, if contrarian means constant disagreement.
  7. Keep listening. Contrarian doesn’t mean “my way or the highway.”
  8. Practice clarity and mutual accountability. Have others hold you accountable to the same degree you hold them. Contrarian isn’t about being aloof or superior.
  9. Always show respect.
  10. Maintain optimism. Contrary isn’t negative.

Note: I”m not encouraging bullying. Bullies aren’t leaders.

How can you move toward contrarian leadership, today?

How the Lebanese economy cannibalises itself

A horror State for enterprising people

14 August 2018

Conventional wisdom holds that Lebanese are born entrepreneurs—and it’s generally true, everywhere but in Lebanon itself.

They’ll succeed in Silicon Valley, carve out their own space in Nigeria and manage multimillion dollar projects in Saudi Arabia.

But a core reason for all this activity abroad is, precisely, how difficult it is to break through back home, in an economy that preys on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) while continuously feeding corruption and clientelism. 

The ideal of the Lebanese entrepreneur nonetheless pervades Lebanon’s economic landscape. The central bank has dedicated over $400 millio to support investments in the digital sector.

Western embassies bankroll incubators and mentoring programs expected to churn out the next generation of innovators.

Politicians in Beirut speculate that Lebanese companies will rebuild Syria.

And Lebanese elites recently attended a much-heralded conference in Paris, with the poorly defined goal of saving Lebanon’s economy through partnerships with the country’s private sector.

Amid all this haphazard bustle, conspicuously absent is a clear understanding of what makes the country’s entrepreneurial environment so self-consuming, especially when it comes to small-scale, productive ventures.

Unease of doing business

At first glance, setting up shop in Lebanon seems easy. Creating a limited liability company takes a matter of days and requires modest capital–5,000,000 LBP, or slightly over $3,000.

Yet serious problems soon arise. As the owner of several high-end restaurants put it: “Being an entrepreneur in Lebanon is effortless for the first 48 hours. After that, it becomes virtually impossible.”

At a macro level, the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” indicator—which measures regulations and procedures to open and run a company—ranks Lebanon below the already dismal average for the Middle East and North Africa. From poor infrastructure to labyrinthine bureaucracy and a nonsensical regulatory environment, the challenges to successful business are myriad.

While no single issue in and of itself is necessarily prohibitive, problems pile up to the point where little gets done.

Simply paying bills and taxes can be extraordinarily time-consuming, and therefore resource-intensive.

Your phone? Set a reminder to go to the local branch of the national supplier once a month, where you will queue at the counter to avoid being disconnected for pending invoices.

Electricity? Chase down both the owner of the neighborhood electricity generator (private energy provider) and the representative of the public electricity provider, who have an uncanny tendency to show up outside office hours.

A lucky business opportunity? Submit hard copies of your contract to the Ministry of Finance within five days of signature, or risk penalties.

Taxes? Drive to the bank through heavy traffic, fill out forms, get a banker’s check, and bring it to the Ministry of Labor—each time a specific tax is due.

Merely collecting a receipt conforming to state-imposed standards may entail waiting at a special counter to acquire a size A4 printout complete with various stamps and signatures.

Such rules are a nuisance made worse by the almost comedic lack of clarity regarding their application.

In 2017, the country spent months wondering if the value added tax, or VAT, was 10 or 11%—while national politicians dithered on the matter. That same year, the government bumped up social security contributions retroactively and with no advance notice. In 2018, tax evaders enjoyed a sudden, sweeping amnesty.

In short, entrepreneurs simply cannot trust existing laws to provide consistency.

Foreign investors or employees can be denied work or residency permits that they are formally entitled to, if they fail to play by the system’s informal rules—namely through kickbacks and commissions.

“I have been waiting for visas for two Chinese nationals for three months,” grumbled the founder of a digital startup. “Now I am told that I can only get one and I have to choose whom to give it to—there is no logic to it.”

Essential aspects of a business-friendly legal framework are missing entirely.

In particular, Lebanon does not enforce intellectual property rights. It also lacks, amazingly, a bankruptcy law.

As a result, it is virtually impossible to shut down an existing company. “What we do is that we wait for five years, deliberately not doing anything,” explained a public accountant. “That’s how far back the Ministry of Finance can go to ask for documents in our archives. Then it’s over. The company continues to exist in perpetuity, but is considered dormant.”

On top of structural impediments to business, the Lebanese environment also throws up sporadic, petty obstacles—notably in the form of official negligence that sometimes borders on sabotage.

The owner of a street food restaurant, having incurred a devastating sewage leak in front of his establishment, recounted: “I called the municipality and heard that they couldn’t come for the next two weeks. So, I had the road fixed myself. I pay taxes and also foot the bill for public works.”

A trader in perishable goods shared another horror story: “I have to import my cargo in refrigerated containers, because the port administration delays my merchandise so much that it goes to waste. That would be expensive in itself if I didn’t have to send someone every day to check that they don’t unplug the air conditioning!”

The broker economy

In typical Lebanese fashion, SMEs have responded to this obstacle course not by lobbying for reforms, but through makeshift solutions that have become part of the system.

The entrepreneurial spirit that exists is, unfortunately, predominantly invested in navigating the economy’s structural deficiencies, rather than investing in its potential.

As a result, a sector has flourished around intermediaries who position themselves between SMEs and the numerous public administrations they must contend with.

Most companies retain at least one full-time employee whose sole function is to carry out the pesky, menial tasks that are essential to running a business in Lebanon—such as spending a day in traffic to pick up and deliver a banker’s check, for a service that could easily be done over the internet.

Such errands multiply in ways that often seem absurd: Subscribing to the state electricity grid requires a rental contract that must be approved by the municipality, a formality which can take days without a dedicated middleman.

Banks themselves have turned this go-between function into a remarkably profitable service.

They will settle a company’s internet, mobile phone and electricity bills for $5 per invoice per month. That may sound expensive, and it is—but it is still appealing compared to the resources otherwise wasted in transportation, parking and queuing.

Another form of mediation consists in buffering SMEs against Lebanon’s convoluted fiscal and legal framework.

Accountants and lawyers are essential allies in sustaining any enterprise, not so much by clarifying the rules, but by capitalizing on their inherent flexibility.

Accountants often use personal connections and bookkeeping wizardry to find arrangements with the Ministry of Finance to circumvent penalties or minimize taxes.

Lawyers tend to tap a higher-profile network to resolve more serious obstruction originating within specific public institutions.

Brokers help negotiate relations with the authorities at all levels.

While red tape and inefficiencies are in no way unique to Lebanon, the amount of time, energy and money that Lebanese must spend to overcome them is indeed special.

Business would prove literally impossible without such efforts. For instance, a digital startup operating outside of Beirut only gained decent access to the internet via an old friend at the Ministry of Communications.

Bigger problems require higher level brokers, leading many companies to operate under the umbrella of political patrons, or zuama.

These public figures (militia leaders of civil war in power) , who typically trade favors for electoral support, have the power to unlock seemingly hopeless situations. They are the ultimate brokers, to the point where their goodwill can become an existential issue.

Compete with the wrong people and you may soon see ordinary problems multiply, to the point of putting you out of business.

This phenomenon is deeply entrenched, not least because it dates back generations.

In his History of Beirut, Lebanese historian and journalist Samir Kassir refers to the handful of families who controlled the economy up to the mid-1970s as “the consortium.” They dominated imports from the US—then the country’s major trade partner—and economic pillars such as finance, services and industry.

Members of the consortium were either directly involved in politics or enmeshed with the political elite.

Today’s system functions in similar fashion, with small groups of individuals running oligopolies in key fields of activity, where competition is minimal and returns inflated.

Such profits provide the happy few with ample financial capacity to deal with all the problems mentioned above—by hiring a host of assistants and brokers, bribing bureaucrats, or giving kickbacks to the political patrons on whom their businesses depend.

Rent extraction

Generally speaking, entrepreneurship in Lebanon is heavily constrained by a number of very high barriers to entering the market.

Communication services are among the most expensive in the world.

Basic postal services likewise: “Even with higher labor costs and taxes and stricter regulations, France and Germany have lower delivery costs than we do,” raged the CEO of a delivery company.

Trivial banking operations are outrageously priced, and hourly rates for ordinary legal counsel can easily reach hundreds of dollars.

Standard accounting fees are officially set at 5,000 USD per year, even when minimal work is required. The CEO of a social impact company described his astonishment upon the discovery: “I asked for a few quotes and they all gave me the same figure. I had no employees and little activity. I thought, ‘what a rip off!’”

Meanwhile, contracts, value added and profits all incur significant taxes, while social security contributions add at least a 20% overhead cost to salaries (despite providing staff with such poor services that many are forced to purchase private insurance anyway).

In short, costs are often similar to those in developed economies with high-functioning infrastructure, services and regulatory frameworks.

The end result is a layered landscape that leaves little space for conventional business.

At the bottom, a bulging informal economy accommodates most would-be entrepreneurs, who fail to create SMEs precisely because the entry costs are too high.

At the top sit the large corporations, who are sufficiently well-connected and profitable to consider such expenditure trifling.

Worse, top corporations have a vested interest in keeping the economy as exclusionary as it currently is, to repress the healthy competition that could change the rules of the game.

In between these extremes, small and medium-sized companies struggle. Typically, they end up being dependent on bigger fish, who patronize them by helping them survive but not thrive.

Hence many SMEs remain in a grey area where it is impossible to sign contracts with public administrations for tenders or trade with foreign partners.

Tripoli is a case in point, as home to several billionaires, a sprawling informal sector, and just a handful of SMEs—despite cheap labor, affordable industrial space and adequate infrastructure.

The great fortunes built on an otherwise thoroughly stagnant economy evoke the notion of “rentierism,” denoting economic systems where elites extract wealth from existing resources rather than generating it through productive activity.

In Lebanon, numerous rents are derived from controlling niche markets in which oligopolies ramp up the prices—as customers enjoy no alternatives. A wine merchant acknowledged: “Lebanese wines are more expensive in Lebanon than abroad, amazingly. Here they can afford to be over-priced because imported wines are themselves kept artificially expensive.” In other words, the rent is “extracted” from the purchasing power of ordinary citizens, who find it increasingly hard to make ends meet.

Just as an oil state redistributes its riches through subsidies and co-optation into the state bureaucracy, Lebanon generates a plethora of unproductive jobs that implicitly serve a similar function.

Banks are replete with people and functions that would not be necessary were absurdly archaic services to be automated.

While companies hire poorly qualified staff to pick up banker’s checks and pay the bills, administrations do as much to process them.

Across the board, inefficiencies go hand in hand with low-paying jobs meant to supplement them. In a sense, this system offers an essential social safety net by creating accessible employment.

But the argument of solidarity only goes so far: The fact that Lebanon’s unproductive economy is geared toward oligopolistic accumulation is the reason why people struggle to find suitable jobs in the first place.

The government and its international partners are right in pinpointing the crucial role SMEs must play in generating and circulating more wealth.

But that will only happen once local authorities and their external backers take steps to restrain the ferocious appetites of Lebanon’s oligarchs, by reaching an agreement on basic reforms in exchange for sustained investments.

So far, all that talk about entrepreneurship has done little more than cover up lack of action.

This piece is excerpted from a series of short essays, the Lebanese Economy Watchdog, which unpacks economic issues most critical to Lebanese citizens, from their vantage point and in accessible terms. To sign up for updates, go here.


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