Category Archives: Interesting

An Unusual Religious Alliance to Aid Refugees

How refreshing. Oh, it can be done!
By Georgette Bennett
March 26, 2015 7:08 p.m. ET

Last month I visited the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan known as Za’atari. With 80,000 occupants, the camp would be the fourth-largest city in Jordan. It occupies a vast desert plain, filled with endless rows of tents that are gradually being replaced with rows of metal-sided caravans. Za’atari is a dreary place, but it is teeming with resilient people.

Residents of camps like Za’atari make up only 20% of the nearly four million refugees who have fled Syria. The rest live in cities, where they are often unregistered and therefore ineligible for services. These refugees tend to live in squalor and are vulnerable to exploitation. Nearly 80% of the refugees are women and children. These figures don’t include the 12.2 million within Syria who are either internally displaced or in urgent need of help.

About 200,000 people have been killed in Syria, many after torture. A photographer, who documented these horrors for the regime but defected, smuggled his photos out of Syria; they were passed on to me by a Syrian non-governmental organization. These emaciated, disfigured corpses could be skeletal Jewish inmates photographed during the liberation of Dachau, but they aren’t. They are Syrian Muslims and Christians—and this is happening now.

As a Jew, I felt compelled to respond, and out of that response came an unexpected union. In partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and with the convening of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, I initiated the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. MFA includes Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Sikhs, as well as other faith-based and secular groups. In addition to raising awareness of the crisis, MFA raises funds to support organizations that are working on the ground to provide services to refugees.

Many nongovernmental organizations struggle to address this traumatized population’s immense needs. Among those groups are Israeli organizations that are operating throughout the region. Some of them—the Israeli Trauma Coalition, Saving a Child’s Heart and IsraAid, for instance—allow themselves to be identified. Others prefer to operate below the radar because, as Israelis, they are in hostile areas. Despite this animus, the Israeli government has opened its northern border in the Golan to treat wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals.

The story of Amin and Anat, as I’ll call them to protect their work, shows how traditional religious enmities are being overcome. Amin, a Syrian businessman, told me that he had been providing medical assistance in Syria when he was forced to flee. The Assad regime has made it a policy to attack medical workers and medical facilities to limit the treatment of opposition fighters. Syrian doctors have been arrested, tortured and killed as traitors.

More than 15,000 physicians have fled Syria, according to the Syrian-American Medical Society. Only a few remain in major cities. But Amin has managed to help his fellow Syrians from outside.

One day, as he was smuggling in aid to Syria, he met Anat, the founder of an Israeli NGO. When he learned that she was Israeli, Amin told me, he was suspicious. After all, he had been taught that Israel is the enemy, yet here was an Israeli offering help. Amin and Anat have now worked together for more than two years. Anat’s Israeli organization and a prominent Syrian NGO have worked together to deliver food, help Syrian children get lifesaving operations in Israel, provide rescue equipment for Syrians affected by bombings and more. Israelis and Syrians have been able to rise above politics to work together to alleviate suffering.

This humanitarian work is launching a people-to-people process in which Syrians and Israelis will come together to discuss future free-trade zones and other partnerships. As Amin to told me: “The Syrian uprising against the Assad rule gave a rare opportunity among the Syrian society to start to question the rationale behind this hate for Israel. With Israelis coming to the aid of Syrians in their struggle to survive, more Syrians have come to the conclusion that Israel is not the enemy but a potential partner in the new Syria.”

Several prominent Syrian families are involved in the planning, which offers even more promise. Their country is a tribal one, and these families are likely to remain influential, whomever is in power after the war ends. The glimmer of hope in the darkness is that Israelis and Syrians, Jews and Muslims and others are changing their perceptions of one another and finding constructive ways to work together. It is small, targeted initiatives like this one that can lay the groundwork for broader change in the Middle East.

Ms. Bennett is the founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a project of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in cooperation with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.


Hearing Aid? No…

I had read these kind of tools were being worked on. Looks very interesting and promising.

By Geoffrey A. Fowler

There’s a certain agony to walking into a restaurant and realizing you won’t be able to hear a conversation over the clatter. But for many people there’s one thing even worse: wearing a hearing aid.

The term conjures up frailty and the inevitability of old age. Up to 98 million Americans say they struggle with hearing loss, yet only 8 million or so wear traditional hearing aids. That leaves many millions who cope by reading lips or coaxing everyone else to speak up.

A new gadget called the Soundhawk Smart Listening System offers help to people who know they have a hearing problem but don’t think they need a $3,000 prescription hearing aid. The $300 Soundhawk isn’t a medical device—it’s app-controlled ear gear for when you could use a little audio enhancement.

There’s a chance the tech in the Soundhawk’s earpiece and companion microphone could change the way you experience the world, a giant accomplishment for any gadget. But it faces an incredible cultural challenge: Even if we get comfortable acknowledging hearing loss, will it become acceptable to stick a device in your ear during supper?

The Soundhawk is for people who don’t mind looking a bit like a cyborg. Instead of a discreet behind-the-ear loop, like most hearing aids, the Soundhawk protrudes from the ear canal, taking design cues from Bluetooth headsets and wearable fitness trackers. Long hair might obscure it, but the Soundhawk isn’t designed to hide.

I don’t have diagnosed hearing loss, but I tested the Soundhawk at busy restaurants and dinner parties and on noisy streets—places where even a guy in his 30s finds himself straining to catch the conversation. I also lent a Soundhawk to people in the target demographic, including my parents, who have difficulty hearing in noisy restaurants and, like their son, are eager to test new gadgets.

Our senses are complex and personal, so experiences with the Soundhawk varied. When I used it, I was sometimes overwhelmed by hearing everything louder. But the device made it possible to have conversations that normally would have been difficult. It helped my mom hear my dad well enough that they said they’d seriously consider buying one for traveling or going out to a crowded restaurant.

The Soundhawk, which you can buy on its company website, brings some Silicon Valley engineering and marketing to medical devices. But it is hardly the first attempt at an alternative to medical hearing aids. Called personal sound-amplifying products, these devices range from $10 “ear glasses,” which purport to magnify sound without electronics, to the $375 Etymotic Bean earpiece that looks just like a hearing aid.

The Soundhawk’s makers—among them Rodney Perkins, founder of the California Ear Institute at Stanford and hearing-aid maker ReSound, among other health companies—took pains to do more than make a cheaper hearing aid. The Soundhawk comes with a sleek carrying case that houses a 27-hour battery, so it can double as a cordless charger. You can customize the Soundhawk to your ears and tune it to different situations, like restaurants or cars, using an app.

Putting a Soundhawk in my ear for the first time was a little disorienting. The device itself, which weighs 6 grams, sat comfortably. But suddenly, sounds I thought I knew sounded exaggerated: My keyboard became a jackhammer, and a closing door became a car crash.

Higher pitched sounds took on a tinny sheen. A noisy Irish bar sounded like the cacophony of trays and plates in a cafeteria. Soundhawk Chief Executive Mike Kisch said this was a perception issue that would pass with time. “Our brains are very good at noticing new things, but quickly become bored with them,” he says. At a noisy dinner party about a week into using the device, the Soundhawk did help me focus on my own conversation. When I took it out of my ear, I missed the edge it gave me. Without it, everything sounded duller.

My parents, neither of whom has been medically diagnosed with hearing loss either, got a lot more out of the Soundhawk. They had stopped going to one of their favorite restaurants because its high ceilings made it too noisy. But when my mom wore the Soundhawk, the words she heard were crisper. My folks carried on a lovely conversation at the restaurant. If anything, my mom said, Dad would have to learn to speak less loudly.

When they used it to Skype with my brother, my mom didn’t have to keep asking him to repeat himself. And it helped my dad keep up while sitting in the back seat of the car. “I think the Soundhawk would make family outings much more enjoyable,” he said. Soundhawk’s app could use some improvement. It allows you to tune the device to your needs but offers just sliding scales for vague-sounding factors, such as “Full/Bright” and “Boost.”

The biggest problem we all experienced was increased volume on stuff that wasn’t of interest, like other people’s conversations. The Soundhawk has a directional microphone on its earpiece, but no earpiece can, on its own, filter out background noise, says Robert Sweetow, a professor of otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco. Background noise often has the same frequencies as voices we want to hear.

That’s why the Soundhawk’s wireless microphone, similar to those available with some premium hearing aids, is key. A microphone “can enhance the signal-to-noise ratio better than anything else,” Mr. Sweetow says. Indeed, conversations were much easier for me to hear when the person I was speaking with wore the Soundhawk’s microphone clipped to his or her shirt and pointing up. (The microphone can work up to 30 feet away, but it isn’t a great spy device.)

Still, there’s a stigma to handing someone a microphone. “If anything is going to hold the Soundhawk back, it is going to be this,” Mr. Sweetow says.

So the Soundhawk has to change not one, but two social norms. Bluetooth headsets for cellphones were an early hit but came to be associated with jerks who talked too loudly in public. Maybe the earpiece is due for a comeback: The main character in Spike Jonze’s near-futuristic “Her” wears one to communicate with his beloved operating system. The Soundhawk can also be used to operate a smartphone.

I felt conspicuous wearing a Soundhawk in public. A guest at a San Francisco dinner party asked whether my cyborg gear was recording everything. Some of the negative impressions left by the Google Glass camera-equipped headgear are hard to shake. My parents weren’t really bothered, though. They were thrilled to find technology that could help them.

Anyone with trouble hearing in a quiet room should probably check in with an audiologist. For the rest, experiences with the Soundhawk could vary depending on a very personal combination of your ears, your brain and your relationship with family and friends. That’s why its makers have smartly offered a 60-day money-back guarantee, including free shipping and returns.

The Soundhawk may even appeal to family members who might buy one for a person whose hearing loss has started to disrupt their own lives. It’s easy to forget that when you can’t hear, the people around you have to make adjustments, too.

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at or on Twitter @geoffreyfowler

Hearing Aid? No, Soundhawk Is an Ear Wearable – WSJ.


News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier

Lot more truth than not in this piece. We waste WAY TOO MUCH time on “news”.
In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.

News misleads. Take the following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.

We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability. If you think you can compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognise what’s new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we’re cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.

News has no explanatory power. News items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect. The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. If more information leads to higher economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That’s not the case.

News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.

News increases cognitive errors. News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. In the words of Warren Buffett: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” News exacerbates this flaw. We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities. It also exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that “make sense” – even if they don’t correspond to reality. Any journalist who writes, “The market moved because of X” or “the company went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way of “explaining” the world.

News inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. There are two types of memory. Long-range memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is a choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.

News works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore. Scientists used to think that the dense connections formed among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls were largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.

News wastes time. If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add five minutes here and there when you’re at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.

News kills creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

I have now gone without news for four years, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first-hand: less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

This is an edited extract from an essay first published at The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions by Rolf Dobelli is published by Sceptre, £9.99. Buy it for £7.99 at

News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier | Media | The Guardian.